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Yes, We Still Make Stuff, and It Wouldn’t Matter if We Didn’t – Article by Steven Horwitz

Yes, We Still Make Stuff, and It Wouldn’t Matter if We Didn’t – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance HatSteven Horwitz

One of the perennial complaints about the US economy is that we don’t “make stuff” anymore. You hear this from candidates from both major parties, but especially from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The argument seems to be that our manufacturing sector has collapsed and that all US workers do is to provide services, rather than manufacturing tangible goods.

It turns out that this perception is wrong, as the US manufacturing sector continues to grow and in 2014 manufacturing output was higher than at any point in US history. But even if the perception were correct, it does not matter. The measure of an economy’s health isn’t the quantity of physical stuff it produces, but rather the value that it produces. And value comes in a variety of forms.

Manufacturing is Up

The path to economic growth is not to freeze into place the US economy of the 1950s. Let’s deal with the myth of manufacturing decline first. The one piece of evidence in favor of that perception is that there are fewer manufacturing jobs today than in the past. Total manufacturing employment peaked at around 19 million jobs in the late 1970s. Today, there are about 12.5 million manufacturing jobs in the US.

However, manufacturing output has never been higher. The real value of US manufacturing output in 2014 was over $2 trillion. The real story of the US manufacturing sector is that we have become so much more efficient, that we can produce more and more manufactured goods with less and less labor. These efficiency gains are largely the result of computer technology and automation, especially in the last fifteen years.

The labor that we no longer need in order to produce an ever-increasing amount of stuff is now available to produce a whole variety of other things we value, from phone apps to entertainment to the expanded number and variety of grocery stores and restaurants, to the data analyses that makes all of this growth possible.

Just as the workers in those factories we are so nostalgic for were labor freed from growing food thanks to the growth in agricultural productivity, so are today’s web designers, chefs at the newest hipster café, and digital editors in Hollywood the labor that has been freed from producing “stuff” thanks to greater technological productivity.

Or, put differently: those agricultural, industrial, and computer revolutions collectively have enabled us to have more food, more stuff, and more entertainment, apps, services, and cage-free chicken salads served with kale. The list of human wants is endless, and the less labor we use to satisfy some of them, the more we have to start working on other ones.

But notice something: all of the things that we produce have something in common. Whether it’s food or footwear, or automobiles or apps, or manicures or massages, the point of production is to rearrange capital and labor in ways that better satisfy wants. In the language of economics, the point of production (and exchange) is to increase utility.

When we produce more cars that people wish to buy, it increases utility. When we open a new Asian fusion street food taco stand, it increases utility. When Uber more effectively uses the existing stock of cars, it increases utility. When we exchange dollars for manicures, it increases utility.

Adam Smith helped us to understand that the wealth of nations is not measured by how much gold a country possesses. Modern economics helps us understand that such wealth is not measured by how much physical stuff we manufacture. Increases in wealth happen because we arrange the physical world in ways that people value more.

Neither producing cars nor providing manicures changes the number of atoms in the universe. Both activities just rearrange existing matter in ways that people value more. That is what economic growth is about.

Misplaced Nostalgia

We’re richer because we have allowed markets to produce with fewer workers. When we are fooled into believing that “growth” is synonymous with “stuff,” we are likely to make two serious errors. First, we ignore the fact that the production of services is value-creating and therefore adds to wealth.

Second, we can easily believe that we need to “protect” manufacturing jobs. We don’t. And if we try to do so, we will not only stifle economic growth and thereby impoverish the citizenry, we will be engaging in precisely the sort of special-interest politics that those who buy the myth of manufacturing often rightly complain about in other sectors.

The path to economic growth is not to freeze into place the US economy of the 1950s. We are far richer today than we were back then, and that’s due to the remaining dynamism of an economy that can still shed jobs it no longer needs and create new ones to meet the ever-changing wants of the consumer.

The US still makes plenty of stuff, but we’re richer precisely because we have allowed markets to do so with fewer workers, freeing those people to provide us a whole cornucopia of new things to improve our lives in endless ways. We can only hope that the forces of misplaced nostalgia do not win out over the forces of progress.


Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions.

He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was originally published on Read the original article.

Diversity in Goals Brings Diversity in Value – Article by Frank Shostak

Diversity in Goals Brings Diversity in Value – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Shostak
November 28, 2014

A major problem with the mainstream framework of thinking is that people are presented as if a scale of preferences were hard-wired in their heads. Regardless of anything else this scale remains the same all the time. Valuations however, do not exist by themselves regardless of the things to be valued. On this Rothbard wrote,

There can be no valuation without things to be valued. 1

Valuation is the outcome of the mind valuing things. It is a relation between the mind and things.

Purposeful action implies that people assess or evaluate various means at their disposal against their ends. An individual’s ends set the standard for human valuations and thus choices. By choosing a particular end an individual also sets a standard of evaluating various means.

For instance, if my end is to provide a good education for my child, then I will explore various educational institutions and will grade them in accordance with my information regarding the quality of education that these institutions are providing. Observe that the standard of grading these institutions is my end, which, in this case, is to provide my child with a good education. Or, for instance, if my intention is to buy a car, and there are all sorts of cars available in the market, then I have to specify to myself the specific ends that the car will help me achieve. I need to establish whether I plan to drive long distances or just a short distance from my home to the train station and then catch the train. My final end will dictate how I will evaluate various cars. Perhaps I will conclude that for a short distance, a second-hand car will do the trick.

Since an individual’s ends determine the valuations of means and thus his choices, it follows that the same good will be valued differently by an individual as a result of changes in his ends. At any point in time, people have an abundance of ends that they would like to achieve. What limits the attainment of various ends is the scarcity of means. Hence, once a larger variety of means become available, a greater number of ends — or goals — can be accommodated (i.e., people’s living standards will increase).

Another limitation on attaining various goals is the availability of suitable means. Thus to quell my thirst in the desert, I require water. If no one willing to sell water is nearby, any diamonds in my possession will be of no help in this regard.

Frank Shostak is an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute and a frequent contributor to His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. See Frank Shostak’s article archives.

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.

Organic Shmorganic – Article by Charles N. Steele

Organic Shmorganic – Article by Charles N. Steele

The New Renaissance Hat
Charles N. Steele
October 6, 2012
A study by researchers from Stanford University of “organic” food was unable to find any health benefits, prompting a rant from NYT’s Roger Cohen against organic food.  Finally, finally, finally!  Cohen on track, rather than off the rails!Many years ago I heard Bruce Ames, a cancer researcher and head of College of Public Health at Stanford give a lecture in which he discredited the health claims of the “organic” movement and warned that it would raise costs without returning corresponding benefits.  His main fear was that this would lead people to eat fewer vegetables rather than more.  The second most important thing people can do to avoid cancer is eat more vegetables, he explained (stopping smoking is  number 1).  He based this in part on his own research with with carcinogenic properties of manmade pesticides and naturally occurring ones; the naturally occurring ones were every bit as bad and as prevalent in vegetables, and neither posed a meaningful risk in his research.  (Obviously misuse of pesticides could be a different matter.)  The new Stanford study was unable to find the superior health benefits attributed to “organic” foods, corroborating Ames’ argument.

I’ve also heard agriculture experts discuss the alleged environmental harmfulness of “non-organic” agriculture, something not covered in the Stanford study.  Again, the alleged environmental benefits of “organic” are mostly hype, and in some cases it can be worse.  Chemical fertilizers in particular deserve none of the slander that’s directed at them.  (Again, use them incorrectly and you can poison things… but that’s also true with “organic”.)

I’ve been putting “organic” in quotation marks, because the word itself always meant something different: it refers to carbon-based compounds.  That is, that’s what it meant until the word was grabbed by – let’s be honest – hippie food faddists.  “Organic” was changed to mean “simple, healthful, close to ‘nature,'” (another doubtful word), all utterly unsubstantiated claims.  Next yuppies and similar types jumped on the bandwagon, because it made them feel good about themselves “saving the planet and eating healthier and sidestepping ‘corporate agriculture,’ etc.”

This is a great example of the fundamental role of subjective utility in economic value.  Belief in “organic” is essentially religious faith, unfounded in evidence.  What makes “organic” more valuable is consumer demand, based on perceived, imagined characteristics, not some physical measurable properties.  That’s why big food corporations got into the act. They were slow to enter, and when they did, they were entirely responding to demand.  They would prefer not to produce this way, because it is costlier, but so long as consumers demand it, you give them what they want, or you lose market share.  There’s quite an irony here. Anti-capitalists frequently accuse “big business” of manufacturing consumer preferences in order to manipulate people and reap profits, yet the whole “organic” movement was manufactured by a motley collection of  anticapitalist  mystics from both left and right.

I heard NPR cover this story, and the  reporter concluded that the whole “organic” thing must have been a conspiracy by “big agriculture” (another dubious concept) to hoodwink us and get our money… a completely backwards argument, as most farmers, big or little, would prefer less costly, easier, more productive modern agricultural methods.  It’s quite common to be producing “organic” crops, meat, etc. and have some small step go wrong and have the “organic” label be lost – and even though the stuff is perfectly good, it now can’t be sold for enough to cover costs.  I’ve had farmers tell me about this, and have read of many more examples.

“Organic shmorganic” indeed!

Dr. Charles N. Steele is the Herman and Suzanne Dettwiler Chair in Economics and Associate Professor at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. His research interests include economics of transition and institutional change, economics of uncertainty, and health economics.  He received his Ph.D. from New York University in 1997, and has subsequently taught economics at the graduate and undergraduate levels in China, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States.  He has also worked as a private consultant in insurance design and review.

Dr. Steele also maintains a blog, Unforeseen Contingencies.