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The Fallacy of “Buy Land — They’re Not Making Any More” – Article by Peter St. Onge

The Fallacy of “Buy Land — They’re Not Making Any More” – Article by Peter St. Onge

The New Renaissance Hat
Peter St. Onge
September 21, 2015

“Buy land — they’re not making any more!” is an old investing chestnut, and a common sense one to boot. Economically, it’s also completely false.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, we make land all the time. It just doesn’t look like land.

Why? Because land’s value doesn’t come from its ability to cover up the naked earth. Land’s value comes from its economic usefulness. From the value of things that can be done using that land (Rothbard’s “marginal revenue product” of the land). And that value is, indeed, changing all the time. Economically, from a price perspective, then, we make land all the time.

Step back a moment and ask why land has value anyway. Why do people want land? Well, obviously, because you can put stuff there — including yourself — plus buildings, swimming pools, and factories.

Now, anybody who’s visited West Texas knows there is plenty of building space in the world. You could drive for hours and meet nobody. There’s lots of space for that factory of yours. But it’s not really space itself that makes land valuable. It’s location. As in, there’s only so much room in Manhattan. Or Central London.

Once again, though, it’s not the actual space that matters. It’s the access. Put a strip mall on Manhattan surrounded by crocodile-filled moats and snipers and it will have low value. The value is in access. So Manhattan is valuable because it’s easy to get to other parts of Manhattan. And it’s easy for other people to get to you. Customers, partners, and friends can all easily visit you if your apartment or office is in Manhattan, moatless and sniperless.

So if it’s the access that matters, are they making new access? Of course. They’re doing it all the time.

New highways, new exits, new streets, mass transit, pedestrian malls are being regularly constructed. These all effectively “make new land” because they offer access to existing space. They turn relatively “dead zones” into “useful zones,” or new land.

What are some of the meta-trends on land as investment, then?

First: roads. This was a bigger value-driver a generation ago in the US, as new roads made the suburbs more accessible, helping to drain many cities even as US population grew. Outside the US (Mexico, Thailand, Russia), new roads are still a big deal, and even in the US, new highways can reshape values — draining old neighborhoods and building value in new ones. The decline of cities like Baltimore or Detroit are partly thanks to those beautiful roads that redistribute access to the suburbs.

Second: population. In the US “rust belt” of declining manufacturing, many regions have dropped in price simply because people are leaving. Detroit homes for $100 is emblematic, although of course there are also political reasons some cities are so cheap — in particular, taxes and crime.

And that brings us to politics. Real estate can be cheapened shockingly quickly by taxes and crime, and those traditional drivers have been joined in recent decades by environmental politics.

Environmentalists, by taking land off the market, effectively squeeze the remaining accessible locations, driving up the price. Regions like Seattle or San Francisco are poster children of this environmental squeeze, with modest homes even in remote suburbs costing upward of a million dollars. On the other extreme, cities like Dallas or Houston have kept prices down despite exploding populations by allowing farmland to be converted to residential, commercial, or industrial use.

Beyond the access and political angles, land is also vulnerable to “network effects.” In other words, the neighbors matter. Gentrification or urban decay can be hard to predict. Even in a compact city with rising population like Washington, DC, it can be hard to predict where the middle class or rich want to colonize, and where they want to flee.

There are clues, of course — in large US cities, gays moving into a neighborhood, new coffee shops or art galleries are some leading indicators that property prices might swing up. But gentrification has it’s own mind; even in a booming city it might go into some other neighborhood. New York’s Harlem or Silicon Valley’s East Palo Alto are two very accessible locations with low prices because of perceptions of the neighbors.

So, while they’re not “making” land, they are constantly making things that affect land price: access, regulations, changing neighbors. These are the kinds of factors that make land valuable, not it’s ability to cover the earth.

And so land comes back to earth, joining boring old commodities like wheat or copper. Just as vulnerable to changing supply and demand factors.

And if you are looking for something they’re not “making more of?” Well, gold does come close – hence its appeal. They do mine new gold all the time, but the costs are high enough that gold is a very “inelastic” commodity. It comes close to “they’re not making more.”

Beyond that? Develop your ultimate resource: yourself.

Peter St. Onge is an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Fengjia University College of Business. He blogs at Profits of Chaos.
This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.
Let’s Hope Machines Take Our Jobs: We Want Wealth, Not Jobs – Article by Peter St. Onge

Let’s Hope Machines Take Our Jobs: We Want Wealth, Not Jobs – Article by Peter St. Onge

The New Renaissance Hat
Peter St. Onge
June 11, 2015

The job-threatening rise of the machines is an economically illiterate meme that refuses to die. We’re actually probably in the early stages of it, a bull-market in neo-luddism, if you will. Bastiat’s “Candlemakers’ Petititon” answered this one long ago, but today I’ll run a little thought experiment that owes it all to good old Bastiat.

Let’s say Weird Al Yankovic invents a machine capable of making everything with a single push of a button. The first thing he does is print up a bunch of machines and sell them for a ton. Weird Al is now a billionaire, and there are thousands of make-everything machines.

This diffusion of Weird Al’s new technology replicates the market process, where new tech spreads in proportion to its usefulness. If you doubt this, because of patents, for example, check out Brazil’s experience with AIDS drugs, where they tore up the patents on humanitarian grounds.

Weird Al’s machines will, at a minimum, be mass produced in Brazil. Or China. Or Mozambique.

So, one way or another, we get a bunch of make-everything machines.

What happens to the jobs? We’re getting everything for near-free now. So all the production jobs disappear. There are still lots of jobs, of course — child care, gardeners, musicians. But all the production jobs have vanished — something like 20 percent of jobs, maybe up to 50 percent when you include knock-on replacement of people by capital (truck drivers, robot bartenders). Heck, let’s go crazy and say 90 percent of the jobs vanished. Nobody’s got a job outside of preschool or performing on a stage. It’s the end of the world, right?

Well, the key is that, now that everything is made with the push of a button, everything’s extremely cheap. For example, a sixteen-bedroom house or a Lamborghini costs almost nothing. Let’s say they now cost ten cents.

The main expense in such a world is probably surface space. All those dime-a-dozen cars have to park somewhere. It’d take a while to “run out” of space, though — divide the world by the people and you get about twenty acres (eight hectares) for a family of four — about 100 large surburban yards. Add in the oceans — floating islands cost nothing, remember — and triple that. We end up with about 300 homes’ worth of space per family.

What about those unemployed people? Well, when a house or a year’s food costs a dime, they’ll be willing to work really cheap. We’ll work for a penny a day. After all, that’s a new house or a year’s food every two weeks.

Who would hire these workers for a penny? Plenty of people. Heck, if workers cost a penny a day I’d hire several for each of my children, just to keep the kids from getting bored. I’d hire another to cook, one to clean, one to run errands. One to keep track of my mail. One to check Facebook for me. At a penny a day I’d personally hire 100 people, easy. You would too — a buck a day’s nothing.

So the remaining 10 percent of workers who didn’t lose their jobs — babysitters, baristas, musicians — would want 100 workers each. Even at a penny, they’d take them all, and they’d be paying an outrageous rate — a tenth-house per day! That’s a daily rate of $15,000 in today’s terms.

Now, those who kept their jobs would, of course, see dropping wages. A barista who made $12 an hour in the old days would have to compete with the hordes of unemployed workers. Maybe her wage would drop to a penny, too. But, remember, a penny now buys $15,000 worth of stuff.

When the smoke clears, most people would make some extremely low wages — a penny a day. And that extremely low wage would be worth an awful lot — $15,000 a day, implying an annual income north of several million dollars in today’s values. Some lucky few would make a dollar a day — probably the people who are good at things machines cannot do: entertainment, child care, being a good listener, strumming the guitar at the retirement home, and laughing at jokes. At a dollar a day, this super-rich elite that excels at human skills — such as making us laugh — would be billionaires in today’s values.

Either way, there would be nothing we think of even remotely as “poverty.” Sure, there’ll be inequality, but it’ll be relative: “Sarah’s got 200 Lamborghinis and I’ve only got 40.”

The upshot is that wages plunge, but production costs plunge even more. Of course, this is based on the ridiculous Weird Al machine. Why do this? To illustrate the absolute worst-case scenario, when machines make everything for near-nothing.

What about going one step further: That the machine destroys all jobs in the whole world — it makes every single thing for us free, and it even keeps the folks entertained and the warm fuzzies flowing at the old folks’ home.

Well, we’ve already got a case study there — the sun. It gives us warmth and mangos for free. And how do we respond? We sit around and lazily enjoy it. So a machine that truly replaced all jobs would simply mean nobody works anymore — life’s somewhere between a non-stop party and a non-stop pleasant walk in the woods followed by a nice bonfire with friends and chardonnay.

We should all be so lucky that the machines do actually take every last job there is.

Peter St. Onge is an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Fengjia University College of Business. He blogs at Profits of Chaos.
This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.
Revolutions Eat Their Parents – Article by Peter St. Onge

Revolutions Eat Their Parents – Article by Peter St. Onge

The New Renaissance Hat
Peter St. Onge
January 13, 2015

Left-wing revolution is one of history’s biggest bait-and-switches. Both for the intellectuals who hanker for the grapeshot, and for the marginalized peoples who get concentration camps instead of the anti-capitalist utopia they were promised.

“Revolutions eat their children.” This observation, by a journalist during the French Revolution, was only partly true. In reality, revolutions eat their parents. In particular, history’s left-wing revolutions eat the left-wing intellectuals who made them happen. By “left-wing” here I mean revolutions that explicitly aim to use government power to reshuffle society. To remake society so it matches whatever version of “justice” strikes its promoters as attractive.

Of course, in such reformist revolutions the eggheads are just an appetizer. History’s reformist revolutions move straight on to the main course: the marginalized and minorities who were often the revolution’s most passionate supporters to begin with.

The left-wing revolutions of the twentieth century have all followed this pattern: midwifed by utopian intellectuals, power is quickly seized by political entrepreneurs who play to the basest instincts of the common people. Even in the most “civilized” places, such as “anything goes” Weimar Germany or 1950s “playground of the stars” Cuba, these newly enthroned are happy to see those eggheads and their “perverted” friends interred, tortured, hung from the nearest lamp post.

The litany is depressing. Especially for any tenured radical drawing taxpayer money to cheer on the violence. Mao famously boasted of “burying 46,000 scholars alive” meaning he shipped them wholesale to concentration camps so they would shut up and die. Pol Pot’s radical communist movement famously executed intellectuals in the thousands, extending to anybody who wore glasses. Even the supposedly “cool” regimes like Fidel Castro set up concentration camps for homosexuals, while the Soviet Union illegalized homosexuality for over fifty years, outdoing by a mile that light-weight hater Putin.

Most ironically, given his campus stardom, radical hero Che Guevara gleefully and personally executed homosexuals, whom he detested, while helping set up Fidel’s network of camps across the county to torture gays and effeminate men into renouncing their allegedly wicked perversions that were supposedly the product of morally corrosive capitalism.

Why do reformist revolutions enjoy executing both left-wing intellectuals and the very “vulnerable groups” so near to the leftist heart? Because power has its own logic. Because any government based on violence has to constantly watch its back. And that means it has to appeal to the basest instincts of the masses. If the masses hate gays, or Jews, or the eggheads, then the government will do what it’s told, stuffing the Gulags with gays, Jews, and eggheads. What the basest people hate, omnipotent government hates.

Why are intellectuals so blind to this horrible pattern? Presumably, they hope this time is different and that the campus radicals and their pet politicians will hold on this time. If history is a guide, they will not. Instead, their revolution will get snatched from them by political entrepreneurs and turned into their worst nightmare: a revolution that is anti-intellectual, anti-gay, racist, and anti-Semitic. No matter how pure the birth of the revolution, history suggests this is what it will come to.

This gives no pleasure to point out. None of us want radical leftists hanging from lampposts, or executed in Che’s office for his entertainment. What we do wish is that violence-promoting reformers would have a bit more respect for the fire they play with. For them to study a bit more history. To understand why it is, always and everywhere, so dangerous to ride the tiger of unlimited government.

The left thinks it can control the tiger of the masses unleashed. It cannot, and indeed it will be the first to hang. And that would be very sad for us all, left and right.

Peter St. Onge is an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Fengjia University College of Business. He blogs at Profits of Chaos.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Cryptocurrencies and a Wider Regression Theorem – Article by Peter St. Onge

Cryptocurrencies and a Wider Regression Theorem – Article by Peter St. Onge

The New Renaissance Hat
Peter St. Onge
December 18, 2014

The debate whether or not cryptocurrencies are “money” has put a spotlight on the Menger-Mises Regression Theorem. As stated, the theorem posits that a non-fiat money must have had value before it became a money. Some have used currencies’ lack of antecedent value as knocking it off the money pedestal or as forcing cryptocurrencies to ignominiously piggyback on fiat currencies’ own regressions.

In a 2013 post Konrad Graf makes the excellent point that such critiques misread the Regression Theorem. In reality, Graf argues, the theorem is not a hypothesis to be tested, rather the theorem tells us that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin indeed had some antecedent value. At which point our task is to discover what that antecedent value was. Graf suggests several alternatives, including utility of Bitcoin as a geek toy, as art, or as social marker. Because of these non-monetary uses, Graf writes, bitcoin and the theorem do not threaten each other, but “merely gaze across the intellectual landscape at one another with knowing smiles.”

While I agree with Graf on his main point that the theorem implies cryptocurrencies did have antecedent value, I believe that both the original critique and Grafs’ response fall into a trap of misreading the theorem as requiring non-monetary and previously realized (“bought and sold”) benefits.

Money Is a Useful Good

Among Menger’s greatest contributions in his Principles is the realization that money is fundamentally a good like any other — demanded for its usefulness in enabling transactions and store of value — with an actual price dictated by its scarcity.

If money, like any other good, derives its value from the benefits it offers, it’s hard to see why the money, even those benefits, require an antecedent. Just as the internet can be valuable without a “pre-internet,” a cryptocurrency enabling anonymous, irreversible, low-regulation transactions and savings can be valuable without a precursor. [1] If there is no regression requirement for value in any other good, why does money alone bear this burden?

Must Money Have a Non-Monetary Use?

Instead, I would argue for a reading of the Regression Theorem with two important liberalizations. First, benefits provided by a money needn’t be non-monetary. That is, the benefits can reside in the good’s use as money itself — no need for geek-chic art. Second, antecedent demand needn’t have been realized — the use needn’t have actually occurred. It’s the antecedent demand, even latent, not the previous buying and selling, which counts in importing value via the Regression Theorem.

To give an example that satisfies both liberalizations, a benefit such as anonymous wire transfers is both a money-related benefit and is also a service that didn’t previously exist. In a liberalized Regression Theorem, this benefit would count as the antecedent demand giving the spark of life to a scarce cryptocurrency.

A concrete historical example of a currency offering both mainly monetary value and offering it only at moment of birth is Tang China’s paper money. Called “flying cash,” paper offered the key benefit of portability, set against its other risks compared with bullion coins (flammability, uncertain redemption). We could surely seek out non-monetary antecedent value for Tang cash — toilet paper comes to mind. But it seems a stretch to reach for artistic or hygiene uses, compared to the natural conclusion that flying cash was demanded because of its monetary benefits. The fact that demand for portable money was unrealized would simply increase paper money’s value to the unfortunate customer who lacked alternative light-weight money.

This mistaken focus on non-money-related and realized antecedent value is understandable, since even Mises seems to be mixing historical and praxeological discussion in Human Action (chapter 17, sec. 4) where Mises writes, “No good can be employed for the function of a medium of exchange which at the very beginning of its use for this purpose did not have exchange value on account of other employments.”

Here Mises seems to clearly state that Menger’s Regression Theorem requires a currency to have historically represented a commodity having non-money use. This is a natural interpretation, especially in context of Mises’s subsequent discussion of precious metals, clearly useful commodities that you can flash at parties.

But we must take care here to separate Mises’s historical generalization from the praxeological core of his statement. Because Mises has metal on his mind, he suggests the “other employments” must have been antecedent (“did not have”) and, in his subsequent discussion of metals, seems to imply the commodities should be both concrete and previously in use (realized) for non-money purposes.

Money Benefits Are as Useful as Non-Money Benefits

Again, praxeologically, none of these requirements are essential. Money benefits are as useful as non-money benefits, and a useful commodity could conceivably be created and become a medium of exchange at the same moment. So long as the commodity offers “employments” in the form of benefits to users. Cryptocurrencies’ anonymity, regulatory treatment, algorithmically fixed rate of growth, fee structure, and irreversibility of transfer are all money-related benefits, many unrealized before cryptocurrencies came along.

On this reading, and in agreement with Graf, cryptocurrencies are not at all a challenge to the Regression Theorem. They are a confirmation. At birth, cryptocurrencies offered useful features. These benefits function as “employments,” giving cryptocurrencies demand via transaction and store of-value benefits, which in turn import durable purchasing power.

Perceptions Are Important

That “seed” of demand can then be amplified by marketing — by framing the subjective benefits of the currency. Again like any other good, if individuals exert effort to communicate and frame the benefits of a cryptocurrency, then we might expect demand to increase. These individuals may be the owners of businesses that benefit from the currency, or they simply may be enthusiasts.

Now we can simply match these subjective benefits to scarcity to yield a price of a cryptocurrency. Below zero and the currency isn’t “good enough” — it’s not perceived to offer enough benefits. It’s not cool and it’s not art. Above zero and a currency is born: now Satoshi Nakamoto t-shirts are all the rage.

As technology lowers the costs of producing cryptocurrencies, broadening the Regression Theorem’s value requirement to accept novel money-related benefits opens up enormously the range of currencies that are possible in the future. It should be an exciting few decades in the world of currency innovation.


1. Cryptocurrencies benefit from a perception of anonymity, although whether or not there is actual anonymity in practice is another matter.

Peter St. Onge is an assistant professor at Taiwan’s Fengjia University College of Business. He blogs at Profits of Chaos.

This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.