Great sentences: Alec Nove

I was flipping through Alec Nove’s The Economics of a Feasible Socialism (revisted) today, looking over my old underlined quotes from 20 years ago. This book is probably one of the dozen or so I’ve read that fundamentally changed the way I think about things. Looking back, this line in particular stands out:

Externalities arise not because of separation of ownership, but because of separation of decision-making units (p. 74).

Tiny sentence with huge implications. This idea is one that, when I read it, I had never seen articulated so clearly or forcefully. The implication is that some of the pathologies of capitalism do not arise because of the ownership structure of firms, or the profit-orientation, but merely from the decentralization of decision-making. As far as I’m concerned, this is something that every environmentalist needs to understand and grapple with, especially those who think that moving away from capitalist firms towards cooperatives is going to do anything for the environment.… Continue reading

These houses are the source of a great many problems in the world

I was driving by a new housing development in Brampton the other day and I just had to pull over and take a picture. I’ve seen big houses before, but these ones just blew me away. I mean, just look at the size of this thing. It’s more like an institution than a house. (You can look at the double garage in order to get a sense of the scale.) Also, even though you can’t see it very well in the picture, these houses aren’t spread out on one or two acre parcels. It’s a dense development (as these things go), I would guesstimate that they’re building over a hundred of them.

big house

I haven’t written much about consumerism lately, mainly because I have it worked out to my own satisfaction, and there doesn’t seem to be very much new on this front. And yet seeing houses like this reminds me of how central the problem of competitive consumption is, how it lies at the root of so many other problems in the world that we live in.… Continue reading

Response to Tabarrok

Alex Tabarrok from Marginal Revolution recently posted a very generous notice of Enlightenment 2.0 as well as a long review at The New Rambler (under the heading “Does Capitalism Make Us Stupid?”) I’ve been an avid reader and fan of Marginal Revolution for over a decade now, so this was very exciting for me. The review also raises a number of interesting issues, which I thought I might take a moment to comment on.

I’ll start somewhat in reverse order, because Tabarrok’s most significant criticisms arise towards the end of his review. There he makes the observation that the final section of my book is the weakest – that’s the part where I try to propose some “solutions” to all of the gigantic problems that I’ve spent the previous 300 pages diagnosing. Many people have pointed out that these chapters – specifically, the last two – seem to lack conviction, and that the positive proposals I make are all small beer, manifestly not up to the task of solving the enormous problems that I previously identified.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein postscript no. 1

There were a number of things that struck me while reading Naomi Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything, which were somewhat tangential to my main line of critique, and so I left them out of the response piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, some are worth mentioning, particularly those that connect this book up with her previous work, including The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. (One of the annoying things that we academics like to do is read all of someone’s work, then ask pesky questions like “how does it all fit together?” Some people tell me this is unfair, when dealing with the work of non-academics, but I guess I just can’t help myself.)

The first thing that many Klein fans will notice about This Changes Everything is the huge tension that exists between this book and The Shock Doctrine. Indeed, to the casual reader, it might seem as though Klein is taking back most of what she said in the previous book.… Continue reading

Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading all the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing (not including my own), and writing up my reactions — mainly to promote conversation. Today we have Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

Readers of this blog may know that I’ve been having an entirely one-sided argument with Naomi Klein for over 10 years now (since the publication of the book that I co-wrote with Andrew Potter, The Rebel Sell, which despite having only 5 pages or so criticizing Klein, was widely seen as a “response” to No Logo). It is certainly the case that I have spent years of my life trying to get the left in Canada to stop writing books like the ones that Klein writes. As a result, the success of This Changes Everything represents, in a very real sense, the failure of one of my more important life projects.… Continue reading

Affaire HSBC: la pointe de l’iceberg

Au terme d’une enquête de longue haleine, en collaboration avec 60 autres médias issus de 47 pays, le journal Le Monde vient d’exposer au grand jour un vaste système d’évasion fiscale orchestré par l’institution financière britannique HSBC (qui n’en est d’ailleurs pas à son premier scandale)

La nouvelle fait déjà beaucoup parler, notamment à cause des célébrités impliquées, mais les véritables vedettes de l’affaire, ce sont les chiffres : 180,6 milliards d’euro transférés dans le plus grand secret vers Genève, par l’entremise de comptes HSBC appartenant à plus de 100 000 clients et de 20 000 sociétés. Et cela, uniquement entre le 9 novembre 2006 et le 31 mars 2007.

Il s’agit d’activités illicites, il est donc par définition difficile de connaître l’ampleur des sommes impliquées par les structures et mécanismes de l’évasion fiscale. Cette enquête, basée sur des archives numérisées dérobées à la filière suisse de la Banque HSBC, a donc le mérite de jeter une lumière sur cette réalité, même si ce n’est que de façon partielle.… Continue reading

Weekend tax policy reading

Yes, the weekend is nearly upon us. Almost time to put your feet up, get a cup of coffee, relax and catch up on your reading — and what greater joy could there be but to dig into some cutting-edge thinking in Canadian tax policy? After all, don’t you care about social justice? And aren’t you tired of listening to Americans fighting about their tax system? Wouldn’t it be a refreshing change to listen to a sensible Canadian, making sensible recommendations for how our own income tax system could be made more efficient and more just? Well I have just the thing for you:

I read the notes to this speech by Kevin Milligan (UBC Economics) when he gave it in November, but only recently noticed that the official published version is much more elaborate: Tax Policy for a New Era: Promoting Economic Growth and Fairness, and really does offer one-stop shopping for all your tax policy needs.… Continue reading

Why people hate economics, in one lesson

This is extraordinary. Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen recently released a little promo video, to tout their new “Marginal Revolution University” course on microeconomics (as well as their intro textbook). In it they bend over backwards to make economics seem fun, friendly and non-intimidating. Practically every sentence is accompanied by a cutesy little animation, designed to make the study of economics seem as non-threatening as possible. And yet halfway through the video, they ruin it all, by saying something that is guaranteed to alienate most normal people. See if you can spot the faux pas:

I actually think the whole segment from 1:10 to 2:22 is fairly ill-advised, but there are two points where it’s terrible. (Summary, for those who don’t want to watch: They tell the story of how 19th century British sea captains transporting prisoners to the penal colony in Australia used to mistreat the passengers, resulting in very high mortality rates.… Continue reading

The inevitability of road pricing

A friend came over to my house the other day driving a brand new Tesla. It was a sudden reminder that all this automotive innovation that we keep hearing about is actually happening. Just a few days previous, I had been watching this demonstration of Tesla’s new “autopilot” feature:

I have to say that, as someone who hates driving, watching the video below got me pretty excited.

I can’t recall offhand any piece of technology with the prospect of more dramatically improving my quality of life.

On the other hand, driverless cars have the potential to exacerbate a whole lot of other problems. The first is that, unless we make some changes in the way that access to roads is regulated, they will massively increase congestion. The economics of it are pretty simple. You can pay for roads in one of two ways, either with money or with your time. If use of roads is not priced, then there will be overconsumption, which will manifest itself in the form of congestion.… Continue reading

Free Spirits: An Argument against State-Run Booze

When I lived in Oxford, I loved to go shopping for wine. There were a couple of wine stores down the street from where I lived that were clearly owned by wine-lovers. New arrivals had lovingly inscribed tasting notes taped to them. The selection in the two stores was quite different, and clearly reflected the tastes of the owners.

I don’t enjoy shopping for wine in Montreal that much. That’s because rather than being able to walk into a small store with lots of character, I have to go to the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) retail stores. Don’t get me wrong: these stores are bright and efficiently run. There’s nothing wrong with them, but there is nothing particularly right about them either. Each store is pretty much the same as any other. The folks who work there are unfailingly courteous and knowledgeable, but they are knowledgeable in the way you become knowledgeable when you take a 3-week training course, rather than in the way you are because you have developed a personal obsession with a particular cépage, and have idiosyncratically but charmingly stocked your store to reflect your particular obsession.… Continue reading