Marginal Value

A reader recently asked me what price she should be willing to pay for cheap beer by the case. When buying beer at the liquor store (or “beer distributor” if I happen to be in Pennsylvania) I expect “sub-premium” beers (such as Hamm’sPBR, Miller High Life, Keystone, etc.) to be about $15.00 per 30 before tax. When buying slightly better beers, I regard it as a good deal if I can get beers at under $1.00 each. And, of course, one must be willing to pay more for better beers.

But it bears repeating that value is not intrinsic. So I repeat, in the words of Ludwig von Mises: “Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things. It is within us; it is the way in which man reacts to the conditions of his environment.” We may attempt to assign value to something, but those values mean nothing without human action. Either we buy at a given price or we do not. If we say “Pabst is not worth $25.00 per 30” but then still make that purchase, we are clearly mistaken. It is only the act of the sale that tells us anything concrete about value.

What’s more, values change relative to each other based on each individual’s hierarchy of wants. “If a man is faced with the alternative of giving up either one unit of his supply of a or one unit of his supply of b, he does not compare the total value of his total stock of a with the total value of his stock of b. He compares the marginal values both of a and of b. Although he may value the total supply of a higher than the total supply of b, the marginal value of b may be higher than the marginal value of a.” This helps shed light on the classic question of why gold is more prized than water, even though water is essential for human survival while gold is not. The answer lies in the fact that under most circumstances, the marginal value of a unit of water is less than the marginal value of a unit of gold. This is because water is generally plentiful enough to supply our basic needs. But it is equally true that in the severest drought, one would not part with a unit of water for any amount of gold; the marginal value of each has changed with the circumstances.

Beer of the week: Casablanca Premium Lager – Among the many conditions that factor into valuing beer is location. In Morocco one may expect to pay slightly more for a beer than one might expect given the prevailing exchange rates. The marginal value of the stock of beer is somewhat higher for its relative scarcity. (That is not to say that it is hard to get beer in Morocco; it is just a smaller market.) Casablanca, Morocco is one of the largest economic centers of Africa. It is also the source of this aptly named beer. Casablanca lager is clear and pale, with a very faint and dry aroma. It is a very standard micro, but plenty refreshing.

Reading of the week: Human Action by Ludwig von Mises – Later in this, his chef d’oeuvre, Mises writes: “The moralists’ and sermonizers’ critique of profits misses the point. It is not the fault of the entrepreneurs that the consumers–the people, the common man–prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books, and that governments prefer guns to butter. The entrepreneur does not make greater profits in selling “bad” things than in selling “good” things. His profits are the greater the better he succeeds in providing the consumers with those things they ask for most intensely.”

Question for the week: Do the common people truly prefer liquor to Bibles and detective stories to serious books? Is it not simply true that the marginal value of a second Bible is quite low compared to the marginal value of a second drink?

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Gifts are for the Givers

Christmastime is the season of giving. It is the season of charity. It is the season of gifts. But it is not the season of “pure altruism.” That is because, like Santa Claus, pure altruism is not real.

In both charity and gift-giving, the giver always gives to get something in return. We know this because all human action is a choice between alternatives and every action, as Aristotle teaches, “is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” So no charitable act is committed for its own sake, but with an aim at some good.

Only a cynic would opine that the good aimed at by giving gifts is getting gifts in return. And that explanation could scarcely account for charity, especially anonymous charity. One could certainly argue that the good aimed at is the good of the recipient of the gift. But that does not appear to be a satisfactory answer. Economic principles are applicable to all human action, as has been shown by a number of philosophers. And no voluntary transaction is conducted at an absolute loss, because there would is no incentive to do so. (Of course, parties occasionally make a bad deal and lose. And occasionally parties will take a loss now in the hopes of gaining more later.)

As Ludwig von Mises points out, every action is a form of exchange. Barter between individuals is an exchange of the most obvious type, but there are also “autistic exchanges.” An “autistic exchange” is one that an individual makes with himself. For example, if I go to the gym, I exchange my time and energy for perceived health benefits. Gift-giving and charity are other examples of an autistic exchange. “Where there is no intentional mutuality, where an action is performed without any design of being benefited by a concomitant action of other men, there is no interpersonal exchange, but autistic exchange.” The value of the gift is exchanged for the good feelings that come from making other people happy.

Like all exchanges, the autistic exchanges are only undertaken where the participants perceive that the value received is commensurate with the value given. I go to the gym because I perceive that that time and effort is worth the health benefits. I smoke a cigar because I perceive the health hazards and cost are worth the pleasure. I give a gift because I perceive the pleasure of gift-giving (and, to the extent that I expect anything in return, the possibility of gratitude and/or reciprocation) to be commensurate with the thought and value of the gift. Gift-giving, like all other human action, is essentially selfish.

And that’s ok! This is not an indictment of giving or of charity. Quite the opposite. It is in our best interest to give generously. We rightfully perceive that we get value from giving, even when we do not expect a gift in return. Gifts are for the givers, so be a giver this Christmas!
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Beer of the week: Fistmas Holiday Ale – This winter seasonal offering from Chicago’s Revolution Brewing Company is a real treat. This pretty amber brew has hints of ginger and cinnamon, without being over-spiced as many spiced winter beers are.

Reading of the week: The Errors of Santa Claus by Stephen Leacock – As noted last week, Leacock is one of the greatest gifts that Canada has given to the literary world. Whether he wrote for money or for his own pleasure makes no difference to us. (In the words of Mises, “a genius may perform his task for himself, not for the crowd; however, he is an outstanding benefactor of mankind.”) This cute little story shows another way in which gifts are given for the sake of the givers.

Question for the week: This economic analysis works for gift giving, but seems to fall apart at self-sacrifice, even to the point of death. Does such self-sacrifice revive the notion of altruism?


I Spy

“The American of today, in fact, probably enjoys less personal liberty than any other man of Christendom, and even his political liberty is fast succumbing to the new dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious. Laws limiting the radius of his free activity multiply year by year: It is now practically impossible for him to exhibit anything describable as genuine individuality, either in action or in thought, without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty. It would surprise no impartial observer if the motto “In God we trust” were one day expunged from the coins of the republic by the Junkers at Washington, and the far more appropriate word, “verboten,” substituted. Nor would it astound any save the most romantic if, at the same time, the goddess of liberty were taken off the silver dollars to make room for a bas-relief of a policeman in a spiked helmet. Moreover, this gradual (and, of late, rapidly progressive) decay of freedom goes almost without challenge; the American has grown so accustomed to the denial of his constitutional rights and to the minute regulation of his conduct by swarms of spies, letter-openers, informers and agents provocateurs that he no longer makes any serious protest.” – The American Credo (1920)

In the nearly 90 years since George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken published The American Credo, the country has changed quite considerably. It seems worthwhile to make note of some of the ways that their predictions have turned out:

  • “[T]he dogma that certain theories of government are virtuous and lawful, and others abhorrent and felonious” has been a staple of American foreign policy since the book was published. The whole of the Cold War was dedicated to the proposition that American-style “democracy” is morally superior to Soviet-style “communism”. Our latest military adventures have likewise been sold as “spreading democracy” to countries that have “bad” governments. (Even as the United States has actively participated in propping up violent dictators, so long as they were adequately pro-American, if not pro-democratic.)
  • It is more true than ever that virtually all actions violate some law or other. Federal laws alone are now so numerous that literally nobody can say how many there actually are. Additionally, many federal regulatory bodies have the power to enact rules and regulations that carry criminal penalties. So while there may be as many as 4,500 federal criminal laws, there may also be as many as 300,000 federal regulations with criminal penalties. Consequently, it remains nearly impossible to do anything “without running afoul of some harsh and unintelligible penalty.”
  • “In God we trust” is subject to more or less constant attacks, but so far without any success.
  • The goddess of liberty has been removed from our dollar coins. Her first replacement was Dwight Eisenhower, former general and chief executive. Not quite a “policeman in a spiked helmet,” but not too different either. Eisenhower gave way to more peaceful images of Susan B. Anthony and then Sacagawea. Now we are back to the presidents, although the mint now has such an insane supply that they have stopped releasing new presidential dollar coins into circulation. More important than the image on the coins, however, is the fact that in the middle of the 1960’s the United States officially reneged on the promise to pay silver on demand for its notes, paving the way for unprecedented manipulations of the supply of money.
  • The “swarms of spies, letter-openers, informants and agents provocateurs” are still at work in this country, but with more power than ever. Whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden have helped to highlight just how vast and pervasive American government spying is. And, true to Mencken’s observations, the vast majority of Americans do not put up any real protest.

The more things change, so they say, the more they stay the same. But it is hard to believe that even Mencken and Nathan could have been so cynical as to foresee the world as it is today. Surely the constant, and actually accelerating, decay of freedom must have a breaking point. How vast our freedom must have been if we are able to have lost so much.

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Beer of the Week: Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) – Although I have been aware of this Slovakian beer for quite a while, I never tried it until now. When I saw Golden Pheasant for sale in the past, it was always brewed under contract in the Czech Republic. This bottle, however, is the real deal from Hurbanovo, Slovak Republic. The beer is pretty and golden, with a nice white head that leaves decent lacing. It seems very much like any Czech lager, but there is something about it that seems a bit off, particularly in the aftertaste. It really is an ok beer, but there is just something about the Golden Pheasant that I don’t care for.

Reading of the week: The Spy by Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský – Hurbanovo, Slovakia, as it turns out, is named for Jozef Miloslav Hurban, a prominent Slovak freedom-fighter against the oppressive Hungarian regime. His son Svetozár Hurban-Vajanský was a poet and also a prominent Slovak nationalist. So a Hurban-Vajanský poem seems like a good pairing for Golden Pheasant. — The extensive use of spies and secret police against citizens is a sure sign of trouble for all freedom-loving peoples. It has been repeated through history, and the rulers who use those tactics number among the most notorious names in the annals of human society. This poem is a parody of the creation of man from Genesis. The devil forms a body of clay (and spit) and breathes life into it. And the result is not an ordinary man, but something far more evil: a spy.

Question of the week: There is an expression, the origin of which I cannot locate: “agent provocateur is a job so despicable that there is no word for it in the English language.” Do you know who said that? And is the agent provocateur really the worst sort of spy?


Wisdom for sale!

In his biography of Charlemagne, Notker the Stammerer relates a story of two “Scotchmen [who] were unrivalled for their skill in sacred and secular learning.” These men would go into the market and call out, “Ho, everyone that desires wisdom, let him draw near and take it at our hands; for it is wisdom that we have for sale.” This claim drew in the crowds and, ultimately, the attention of the emperor.

The twist in the story, however, is that the Scotsmen really had no interest in marketing their learning to make a profit. They had simply come to realize that if they offered to teach for free, nobody would be interested. Because the price tag is the first signal that the market sees, things that are being given away for free or sold cheaply are assumed to have little worth. Likewise, some people put extremely high prices on their products (even if they intend ultimately to sell for a much lower price) in the hopes that the product will appear more desirable.

I was a tangential party to a real life example of how asking price affects perception. One of my side jobs in college was dealing cards for a promotional company that ran poker tournaments as fund-raisers. The tournaments were well organized and quite successful. However, the owner of the business quickly discovered that some prospective clients saw his very reasonable prices and decided that they wanted to go with a more up-scale competitor. His solution was to raise the prices without changing anything about the product. And it worked. New prospective clients assumed that the high price was a good indicator of the product’s high quality. Business actually increased after the price went up, precisely because the price went up. Like Notker’s Scotsmen, the owner of the promotional company learned that sometimes you have to ask for more than you need, just to get people’s attention.

Modelo Especial
Beer of the week: Modelo Especial – The head on this beer faded so quickly that I couldn’t get a good photo of it before it was gone. Modelo Especial is a clear, gold brew. It has little aroma or flavor to speak of, really. It’d be easy enough to drink a bunch of this stuff at a party Cinco de Mayo fiesta, but otherwise, why bother? And don’t get me started on the price!

Reading of the week: The Life of Charlemagne by Notker the Stammerer, Book I, 1-4 – Charlemagne filled his court with educated men, such as the aforementioned Scotsmen, and had them educate the children of his kingdom. He found that the highborn children did not take to their lessons as well as the commoners. The lesson, again, seems to be that certain assumptions about value need to be carefully scrutinized.

Question of the week: How much does the asking price affect your perception of a product’s value?


Progress in all Directions

There is a general sense that the history of humanity has been a general march of progress. Progress economically, intellectually, socially. Everybody acknowledges that there have been missteps along the way, but on the whole our species moves ever upward. Assuming that this is the case, (which is not totally evident,) perhaps the most interesting parts of history are those missteps. When humanity turns away from progress and things become appreciably worse. We would be well advised to see the earliest signs of our errors so that they could be corrected before we find that we have strayed too far.

At the beginning of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes describes European society before it was plunged into the Great War. Let’s see how far we have come:

“The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep;”

This is still the case, but the internet has removed the need for any human interaction, even placing the order with a person on the other end of the phone line. Thanks to Amazon Prime, many city dwellers can get most things in under a day. There are also myriad more products available, and the internet allows more and smaller vendors to reach each individual.

“he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.”

Again, the internet has vastly improved the opportunity for individual investment. Not only can one buy stocks online, one can invest in a friend’s invention, an artist’s project, or a potato salad. And the ability to invest internationally is unprecedented.

“He could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could despatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference.”

From personal experience, knowledge of the native language is almost never required (although it can obviously be very helpful.) Being a native English speaker is the next best thing to being multilingual. Otherwise, travel has certainly changed considerably since Keynes’s youth. Commercial airlines have made it possible to travel quickly, safely, and cheaply all over the world. (To say nothing of the availability of highway automobile traffic, which doubtless accounts for the bulk of the increase in personal travel since the beginning of the 20th century.) There certainly are passport requirements for some travel, but a modern Londoner can go nearly anywhere in Europe without a visa.

But the security measures of air travel are substantially more than “the least interference.” Something tells me that Keynes’s pre-war gentlemen would be extremely indignant about being forced to partially disrobe in the airport and subject himself to the invasive measures that every modern traveler has to endure.

Finally, modern states eschew the use of specie, and are engaged in a war against cash. But credit cards can be used in a great many countries, even in the smallest towns. In many respects, this makes travel much safer and easier.

“But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.”

Like us, the early 20th Century man was confident that society was always improving, becoming ever more convenient and secure. Then the bombs started to drop.

Anchor Steam Beer

 

Beer of the week: Anchor Steam Beer – The progress of beer production in the United States has certainly had some missteps. (One so large that it resulted in two Amendments to the Constitution.) However, this beer represents a return to progress. Anchor Steam claims to be America’s first craft brewery, and this is their signature brew. In the past, I enjoyed this beer on draft, but I don’t much care for it in the bottle. It is an attractive, almost orange-colored beer with lots of foam. The aroma is yeasty. There is a certain bitterness in the finish that I don’t care for. It doesn’t seem like the same as usual bitterness from hops.

Reading of the week: The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes – This polemic is probably best known for explaining why the terms of the Treaties of Versailles doomed Europe to future strife. But this section focuses on the state of Europe before the war even began.

Question of the week: Is there any field where humanity is clearly moving in the wrong direction? Or, more importantly, is there such a thing as progress?


Perpetually Prolonged Pleasure

The night before Thanksgiving, I visited the Lutheran church where my friend’s father is the pastor. His sermon, as one might expect, was about giving thanks. Specifically, he argued that one of the principle advantages of giving thanks is to prolong enjoyment of the blessing. Taking the time to enunciate what one is thankful for effectively draws out the enjoyment of it. Giving thanks beforehand allows one to enjoy the anticipation. Giving thanks afterwards allows the enjoyment to linger. Giving thanks during forces one to focus on what is enjoyable. The sermon really rang true to me. Also, there was a pie social after the service.

The desire to extend enjoyment indefinitely is a constant factor in my day-to-day life. I have watched countless re-runs late into the night rather than go to bed and “give up” on the day. I also have looked for reasons to have another beer rather than stop drinking. The bulk of this blog post, in fact, was written late at night as an excuse to stay up and have another beer rather than go to bed and end my enjoyment of the day.

I not only attempt to drag out time; I am a great hoarder of consumable goods. Halloween candy lasted for months in my childhood because I was keenly interested in prolonging my enjoyment from it for as long as possible. When there is good beer in the house, I ration it carefully. As I mentioned in an earlier post, an elderly Australian man once mocked me for how slowly I consumed a glass of Coopers. He was not a beer drinker himself, so my efforts to explain the purpose of savoring a good beer were wasted on him.

Attempts at prolonged enjoyment are not always successful. I have also let things go to waste rather than accept the finality of their enjoyment. I have let my tea grow cold rather than finish it and accept that it is gone. When I was little, I had toys that I would hardly play with for fear that they would break and thus end my enjoyment. I grew out of nice clothes that I had barely worn since I did not want to risk staining or tearing them. When I was small, I would use my roller-skates only occasionally to minimize the chances that they would get scuffed or damaged. One day, they no longer fit. I had tried so hard to preserve them for future enjoyment that they had become no use to me at all.

No pleasure can be extended indefinitely, but there is usually the option to prolong the enjoyment somewhat by patience and focus and thanksgiving. In the end, a fine touch is required. Neither let the beer grow warm and unpleasant, nor gulp it down without savoring.

Perpetual IPA

Beer of the week: Troegs Perpetual IPA – If only this beer could be enjoyed perpetually. Troegs Perpetual is a lovely golden IPA with a nice foamy head. The aroma is dominated by sweet floral hops, but the bitterness of the hops is very well balanced with nice malt body.

Reading for the week: Gorgias by Plato, lines 493d-495b – A crucial question that this post does not address is whether prolonging pleasure is actually a good thing. In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates makes his interlocutors squirm by forcing them to address whether even the most base and immoral pleasure seeking can be considered good.

Question for the week: Are efforts to prolong pleasure at odds with an ideal of “taking life as it comes”?


Navy Beans

Economics and morality have strange intersections. Many people cannot help but assign moral value to commercial transactions. “It is wrong for athletes to be paid so much while the beer vendor is paid so little.” “It is wrong for bottled water to cost so much.” “It is wrong to sell mustard gas at any price.” For the first two examples, the complaint might as well be against the laws of supply and demand themselves. Baseball players make as much money as they do because the demand for top-level athletic ability is very high and the supply is very low. There is relatively little moral ambiguity in that case. The mustard gas example, however, reaches something beyond economics.

In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Adam’s son Caleb gives him a gift of $15,000. Caleb insists that he came by the money honestly, having invested in bean futures in anticipation of America’s entry into the First World War. Adam refuses the gift. He makes two claims about why he can’t accept the money: first, the money was stolen from the farmers who could have realized that profit themselves if Caleb hadn’t bought the futures; and second, war profiteering is morally reprehensible.

In response to the first of Adam’s objections, Caleb rightfully denies that the farmer’s were robbed. The farmers were paid nearly 60% over market price for their beans. The profit that Caleb realized on his investment only reflected the risk that he took on himself. If the US had not entered the war and bean prices had remained stable, Caleb would have lost a sizable part of his investment.

The second objection, however, is much sticker. Adam is a member of the draft board. He signs orders sending young men to go and die in a foreign land. Profiting from such a terrible thing as war is, in Adam’s mind, utterly unthinkable. This complaint does not go away simply by saying that somebody was going to profit from the war, so why not Caleb? But is selling beans to the army any different from selling mustard gas to the army? Maybe it is all just supply and demand.

It really is hard to think about this rationally because Caleb is so sympathetic. All Caleb wants is his father’s love. He is convinced that he has done a good job, but his gift is rejected. It is so easy to side with Caleb and to find fault with Adam’s rejection, but maybe there really was something wrong with Caleb’s gift. Maybe it was wrong to profit from the war.

Boot TreadBeer of the week: Boot Tread Belgium Amber Ale – This beer comes from Martens NV, brewers of Willianbräu, Hackenberg, Kinroo Blue, and Damburger. Boot Tread is a pretty amber beer available at the discount grocery store down the street. Even a nation with as proud a brewing tradition as Belgium has its cheap beers, but I suspect that this particular brew is for export only. There is a bit of sweet caramel in the aroma, though not much. Overall, this is a standard, inoffensive cheap ale. Not much more to say.

Reading for the week: War is a Racket by Major General Smedley Butler – After a long career as hired muscle for American economic concerns, Butler finally decides to speak out against the military industrial complex. He maintains that Woodrow Wilson went back on his campaign promise to keep the United States out of the First World War to appease American bankers and manufacturers who stood to lose loads of money if Germany won the war. In this chapter, Butler reviews the obscene amounts of money made by the du Ponts, Bethlehem Steel, and other profiteers during the First World War. Needless to say, Caleb’s $15,000 pales in comparison.

Question for the week: Assuming that it is morally wrong to sell mustard gas to the army because it may be used to kill innocent people, is it morally wrong to sell beans to the army because the soldiers who eat the beans may be used to kill innocent people? What about selling beans to the factory worker who makes the gas? What about selling beans to the mechanic who fixes the car of the factory worker who makes the gas? How far removed must the transaction be before it is no longer “profiteering”?