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Category: Innovation


The Austrian Business Cycle Debunked

This video, The Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle | Roger W. Garrison, from the Von Mises University does a good job of explaining the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT).  The key point is that increasing the rate of savings (capital) results in increased economic growth in the future.  The theory was worked out by Von Mises and Hayek.  The foundation of the theory is very similar to classical economics, which held that economic growth was the result of increases in capital.  The video has a number of charts and graphs to make it look more scientific, however no empirical evidence is provided to support the theory.  Other work may provide empirical evidence, but I know of counter evidence as well.

This article will first discuss ABCT of recessions and some small errors in the theory.  Then I will show that ABCT is incorrect about what causes economic growth and its failure to explain economic history, particularly the Industrial Revolution.

Austrians are always focused on showing that Keynes economic theories are wrong, and they are certainly right about this.  Austrians argue that there is a trade between investment and consumption, which they call the sustainable Production Possibilities Frontier.  Keynesian theory would say there is no difference between consumption and investment.  Certainly there is a trade between investment and consumption.  The Keynesians somehow argue that by eating your seed corn you will be wealthier.  However, a minor problem with ABCT is that it equates savings with investment.  The two are not necessarily the same.

ABCT then states that recessions are caused by Central Banks (the Federal Reserve in the US) arbitrarily lowering interest rates below the market rate, which causes mal-investment and reduces the saving rate.  Unless we narrowly define saving as putting money in a bank, savers have a number of choices which are not directly affected by interest rates.  For instance, savers can put their money in stocks or corporate bonds.  The return on stocks and corporate bonds is more related to the success of the underlying company than the interest rate set by the Central Bank, so the disincentive to save is not a strong as suggested by the ABCT.  The second question is why does this cause mal-investment but increased saving does not.  In both cases the investment intermediary is a commercial bank.  Now if we were talking about direct government spending then the case is clear.  In that case the government is not subject to the market.  However, commercial banks are subject to the market.  If interest rates are lower because of additional savings or because the Central Bank set them lower does not change their loan approval process.  In addition, the ABCT completely ignores tax and regulatory policy.  Are Austrians really saying that recessions can only be caused by Central Banks setting interest rates too low?  Why not too high?  This is why Austrians are obsessed with what Central Banks are doing and seem somewhat oblivious to other issues.

These are not my real complaints with the ABCT however.  My real complaints are 1) recessions happened before there were Central Banks and 2) economic growth is not caused by increases in capital.  Central Banks are a fairly new creation and fractional reserve banks did not exist in the world until around 1650s.  The United States did not have a Central Bank until 1913, but there were recessions before that in the US.  There were certainly recessions in the world before there were banks, including one huge one called the Dark Ages.  ABCT fails to explain the source of all recessions, including the recession of 2001.

ABCT is also wrong on what causes economic growth.  Robert Solow did an econometric study of the US economy to determine how much of the growth was due to increases in labor, how much was due to increases in capital, and how much was due to increasing levels of technology.  According to Wikipedia

[This] technique has been applied to virtually every economy in the world and a common finding is that observed levels of economic growth cannot be explained simply by changes in the stock of capital in the economy or population and labor force growth rates. Hence, technological progress plays a key role in the economic growth of nations, or the lack of ithttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth_accounting

Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize in economics for this work.  (This is not an endorsement of everything Solow says)

I would change the bolded part to state that the only way to obtain real per capita increases in wealth is through increasing levels of technology.  This becomes more apparent if you look over longer timeframes.  If we had the same technology as our ancestors in 1600, even with today’s total capital, would we be any wealthier than our ancestors?  We would not live longer, we would not be able to produce any faster, the only difference might be that we had more savings to fall back on or disseminate existing technologies.  However there was very little technological change at the time, so the increase in technological dissemination would have been small.  As a result, we would be essentially no wealthier than our ancestors.  Our standard of living is defined by our level of technology.  I discuss this in much more detail in my upcoming book, “Source of Economic Growth.”

Note that the ABCT does not account for technological change.  As a result, the theory should hold up in a technologically static world.  However, this is totally inconsistent with economic history.  The Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain and the United States.  There is no evidence that these countries had larger savings or capital stocks than say France or China or Holland or Japan.  The Industrial Revolution was really a perpetual invention machine, driven by inventions not by capital.  The source of all wealth is the human mind.  The application of the human mind to problems of survival is called inventing, which is how we increase our technological level.

Austrian Business Cycle Theory does not hold up under scrutiny.  Austrians have misidentified the source of economic growth and have a defective model for what causes recessions. Naturally they prescribe the wrong medicine.  Austrian Economics is not pro-capitalism, it is not consistent with the enlightenment, reason, and science, which I have described in other posts.

 

 

PS: I mentioned above that the Austrians misdiagnosed the recession of 2001.  They love to say that Greenspan created a bubble economy, which implies that in fact there was no real economic growth in the late 1990s.  The narrative that Greenspan created a credit bubble by holding interest rates too low does not fit the facts.  The economic growth of the late 1990s was built on new technologies that have made our life immeasurably better.  Real incomes and industrial production rose significantly in the late 1990s.  In addition, the effective Fed funds rate in the late 1990s was between 5.5 and 6.5%, which looks tight by today’s standards.  The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet was stable.  There was an inverted yield curve in 2000, which happened as Greenspan was increasing interest rates.  The commodities index was falling slightly in 1999 and rose slightly in 2000.  M1 was essentially flat in the late 1990s and M2 was growing slowly.  The evidence is overwhelming that the recession of 2001 was not caused by Federal Reserve “printing” too much money.  In fact the evidence points to the idea that Greenspan was too restrictive and caused an inverted yield curve in his desire to cause the stock market to cool off, which caused the recession.  It is true that the stock market had gotten ahead of earnings, but recent experiments in economics show this is a common with new investors and is not necessarily the result of easy credit.

 

 

 
The Irrational Foundations of Austrian Economics

The Austrians, such as those on the Von Mises website, like to tout that they are pro-freedom, capitalists, and arch enemies of the socialists and Keynesians.  Strangely enough this means that they have aligned themselves with socialists in opposing property rights for inventors and attacking Locke’s ideas on property.  Even more fundamentally the Austrians seem to share intellectual roots with the socialist or more broadly the post-modernist movement, which is a reactionary movement opposing the enlightenment, reason, and science.  I have written on Fredrick Hayek’s anti-reason, anti-natural rights, moral relativist positions in Hayek vs. Rand: Patents and Capitalism.

However, Hayek was not the only Austrian with post-modernists roots.  Von Mises was clear that values and prices are subjective.  By this the Austrians do not mean that they are personal or that each person puts a different value on things, they mean unconnected in anyway with reality.  Von Mises also said that economics is a value-free science.  This may sound high-minded, but science is not value free.  Science starts with an objective reality, demands logic and evidence, and morally requires that scientist report data accurately.  These positions of Von Mises place him firmly in agreement with the post-modernists (socialists, Keynesians).  Some people think I am misinterpreting the Austrian position so here is a video of a talk from the Mises University that demonstrates that the Mises people are serious about the subjective theory of value.  They are not saying it depends on your circumstances, they are saying there is no connection to reality between prices or values in economics.  The meat of the video starts at 7:35 in which the speaker states “value is just a state of mind.”  At 7:57 he is clear that value has no extensive property, which means it is not related to the real world.  8:16 the speaker states that all we have is a state of mind – that value exists only in the mind of the individual.  9:23 value is a state of mind.  9:54 there is no relation between the external world (reality) and the judgments of our minds – this is as clear as it will get that the Austrians are ignoring reality and believe economics is separate from reality.  11:14 The speaker describes profit as subjective.

Of course this position cannot logically be held to be true so you will find contradicting statements in the talk.  Just like people who deny reality, meaning they deny A is A, the position cannot be held without contradiction.  But since they deny reality matters in economics, they free themselves from the science of non-contradictory thinking – logic.  This makes the Austrians consistent with the post-modernist (socialist) movement.  I cannot say that every Austrian economist makes this mistake, but it is the accepted position of the modern Austrian school of economics and it got its start with Von Mises.

The speaker is trying to destroy the intrinsic theory of value.  Classical economists followed the labor theory of value which is an intrinsic theory of value.  According to this theory the value of an item is the sum total of the labor that went into the item.  The Austrians are correct that the classical economists’ position was incorrect, but their solution is no better.  They want to say value is determined without reference to the real world – that is it is all in the mind of the valuer, while the classical economists said value could be determined without reference to the valuer.  Both are nonsense.  Objective valuation has to take the position of the valuer and the item being valued into account.  Ayn Rand has a great explanation of this topic in Capitalism the Unknown Ideal starting on page 13 I believe.

Capitalism is based in reality, reason, and the ethics of natural rights.  Austrians are not capitalists.

 
Self-Ownership: A Conservative Conspiracy?

The Depclaration of Independence and Individual Rights are generally assumed to be based on the concept of self-ownership.  For instance, the article Who are the Real Liberals? in the American Thinker states “self-ownership entails an inviolable right to our lives, liberty, and property, which at the same time entails a prohibition from violating the rights of others.”  According to the Article Jefferson was even accused of plagiarizing John Locke in writing the Declaration of independence.  According to Nathaniel Branden in an article entitled Reflections on Self-Responsibility and Libertarianism argues that the United States stood “Freedom. Individualism. Private property. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership.”  And Walter Williams, the conservative economist states “That Americans have joyfully given up self-ownership is both tragic and sad” in an article entitle AMERICANS HAVE GIVEN UP SELF-OWNERSHIP.  But now Leonard Peikoff, of the Ayn Rand Institute, says we got it all wrong and the idea of self-ownership is dangerous.  This issue goes to the source of all property rights.

Leonard Piekoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute and a philosopher, in a podcast asks if there a difference between the principle of self-ownership and the principle of individual rights?  He first restates the questions as is there a difference between someone being the owner of their life and that he has a right to life?  His answer is yes there is definitely a difference. Peikoff argues that ownership is a relationship between you and some external object. As a result it makes no sense to say you own yourself. Next he suggests that ownership is about possession. Finally, he says this whole idea of self-ownership is some sort of Conservative conspiracy and a bad idea. Others have argued against self-ownership because if you can own yourself then it implies that you can be owned by others.

The conservative that Peikoff seems to be arguing with is John Locke, the 18th century philosopher responsible for the idea of Natural Rights that underpinned the US Declaration of Independence.  Locke stated “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.” (Second Treatise on Government, Ch. 2, Sect.27.)  Now some people have argued the preposition ‘in’ here does not imply self-ownership. This is based on a misunderstanding of property rights. A property right is a moral and/or legal claim to a right of action. Or as Ayn Rand, the philosopher and author of Atlas Shugged, states it “Bear in mind that the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object.[1]”  Self-ownership then is the right to action with respect to oneself. Peifoff has used the wrong definition of property and variously confused property with possession and only applying to external objects. Possession may be one right that comes with property rights, but you may own a house and then lease it to someone else. If you do that you have traded your right to possession. Property is often confused with the object itself or with possession of the object, but as Rand’s definition makes clear this is conflating different concepts.

Peikoff also provides no justification for his idea that property only relates to external objects. This inconsistent with Ayn Rand’s definition and is inconsistent with how we use ownership in normal language. For instance Rand variously states:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. (For the New Intellectual, p. 89.

 

“What greater wealth is there than to own your life and spend it on growing?”

–Ellis Wyatt, Atlas Shrugged, Pt. 3 of book.

 

“For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors — between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it.”

–John Galt, Atlas Shrugged, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/good,_the.html

 

“There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.”

Ayn Rand Lexicon, Man’s Rights, The Virtue of Selfishness, 93

 

Without property rights, no other rights are possible.

Ayn Rand Lexicon, Man’s Rights, The Virtue of Selfishness, 94

 

Now it is true that Rand also said that “The right to life is the source of all rights.”  (The Virtue of Selfishness, 93), but given all her other statements I think it is clear that she is talking about the right to one’s own life, not a disembodied right to life.

Neither Rand nor Locke argued that self-ownership was an axiom. Some people say Locke based self-ownership on god, but then why did he spend so much time explaining what rights we had a in a state of nature. As explained in Wikipedia, State of Nature:

For Locke, in the state of nature all men are free “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” (2nd Tr., §4). “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it”, and that law is Reason. Locke believes that reason teaches that “no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, and or property”

Clearly, Locke was not relying just on a deity for his support of self-ownership.

Rand’s genius in ethics was to show that self-ownership was the result of the unique nature of man, namely that he is a rational animal. His survival requires his ability to exercise his own reason and when others attempt to limit his ability to use his mind, they are acting in a way that is inconsistent with his survival.

Peikoff argues that being the owner of your life is different than the right to life and I agree. If you are the owner of your life you not only have the right to life, but you have the right to create property, the right to free association, the right to travel freely, and on and on. A naked right to life does not provide any of these things. Peikoff might argue that the right to life includes those things necessary to sustain that life. But if you are being provided food and shelter enough to be alive, your right to life is being observed even if you are a slave or in a prison.

Ownership of oneself is absolutely vital to Rand’s and Locke’s idea of the origin of property rights. If you own yourself then you own those things your produce, but if you do not own yourself then there is no reason why the things you produce would be your property. Image an unowned robot that produces furniture or cakes. Without self-ownership, there is no reason for the robot to own those things he produces.

Self-ownership is not the axiom on which individual rights are built, it is a derived intermediate concept. However, it is a common starting point in a conversation about individual rights because it is easy to comprehend and is familiar to people who grew up in the United States or most common law countries. The idea of self-ownership is incorporated into the Declaration of Independence and in common law. Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries was the most important treatise on common law in the 19th century. Locke’s idea of self-ownership permeates Blackstone’s Commentaries. Starting with the idea of self-ownership one can build a logical system that is almost as exact as Euclidean geometry. That system explains why we have property rights, how they arise, and who is the rightful owner of the property.[2]  It also explains why murder is illegal, why slavery is illegal, why theft is illegal, in fact most of our common law criminal law. It also explains contract law, why we have a right to free association, right to self defense (including the right to bear arms), right to free speech and on and on. It is an extremely powerful tool.

Does self-ownership open up the possibility of you being owned by someone else?  If so this would be a powerful reason to avoid the concept of self-ownership. The default position is that you own yourself (morally) under self-ownership, so to be owned by someone else you would have to sell yourself. This means you would have to enter into a contract. But a contract requires two people who are able to enter into and fulfill it. Someone who does not own themself is not competent to enter into or fulfill a contract. The second you enter into a contract to sell yourself to someone else you no longer have the capacity to contract so the contract is invalid. In addition, for a contract to be valid it is necessary that both parties provide consideration. When you sell yourself into slavery you are not receiving any consideration, since you have no right to anything as a slave. Attempting to sell yourself into slavery is a logical contradiction. Self-ownership does not lead to the idea that you can be owned by others, but the exact opposite.

Some might complain that this argument is too legalistic. But we are talking about property rights and contracts and therefore the philosophy of law applies. Property rights and contracts have definitions and logical conclusions and one of those logical conclusions is that you cannot sell yourself into slavery because it is an invalid contract.

Self-ownership is not the axiom on which individual rights are built, but it is an intermediate concept that is consistent with individual rights. When starting from an intermediate conclusion it is always important to be aware of the underlying fundamentals to avoid making a mistake. Self-ownership means that you have a property right in your life and property rights are a right to action. This means that self-ownership encompasses the right to life, but it encompasses so much more.

 

 


[1] Ayn Rand Lexicon, Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 93

[2] As opposed to the in vague idea that property rights are the result of scarcity.

 
Competition is for Losers

This statement is from a Peter Thiel interview.  Peter Thiel is a founder of Paypal, investor in Facebook and many other technology startups.  Mr. Thiel is talking about entrepreneurs and businesses and that you want to create a unique company and dominate your market space.  I have just finished a manuscript for a non-fiction book that makes this point from an economy wide point of view.  Wealth is not created by manufacturing undifferentiated, me-too products, it is created by new technologies.  There is no contradiction between what is good for the economy and what is good for an entrepreneur, despite the statement of economists on perfect competition.

One of Peter Thiel’s interview questions is tell me something you know to be true that no one else knows is true?  How would you answer that question?

My answer is that the source of real per capita growth is inventions and patents, property rights in inventions, are the key to stimulating people to invent, resulting in the Industrial Revolution and our present standard of living.

 

This is an excellent post on the inventor Charles Brush from the excellent blog Ice Dynamo.

Charles Francis Brush was born March 17, 1849 on his family’s farm – a farm not so different from those sprinkled across Bainbridge. You can imagine the bemusement of his parents – both farmers – when seemingly from infancy Charles showed an insatiable interest in electricity. He was a mere twelve when he built his first static electric machine.

He graduated college when he was twenty, and immediately went to work repaying his student loan, granted to him by his uncle. Charles spent his days selling iron ore and his nights devising a new dynamo – an early version of the electric generator. He was twenty-eight when his tireless efforts earned him his first patent.

As abundant and reliable as electricity is for us today, it’s hard to imagine what Brush’s dynamo meant for nineteenth century Americans. At the time, electricity was so inefficient and uneconomical that it little more than a novelty; what lighting existed was almost exclusively in the form of kerosene lamps.

The dynamo was a great achievement, but for Charles Brush, it was just a stepping stone. He envisioned a world lit by arc lights (a technology similar to light bulbs). That vision required not only economical electricity, but efficient and reliable arc lights. Once he’d completed his dynamo, he turned his focus to arc lights, and received his first of four patents in 1878.

Charles Brush loved his own life too much to relegate himself to thankless toil in an obscure lab. He was eager for the world to benefit from his genius, and wanted to be remunerated for his effort. Thus, in 1880 he established the Brush Electric Company. It was a herculean undertaking; he competed directly with Thomas Edison’s titan of a company, General Electric. Nevertheless, in a few short years Brush’s arc lights illuminated the streets of cities such as San Francisco, Montreal, Boston and New York. His hydroelectric power plant in Minneapolis was one of the first in the United States to generate electricity from water.

When Brush was 42, he merged his company with General Electric and retired to the mansion he’d built in Cleveland. His home included a private laboratory in the basement and the world’s first automatic wind turbine generator. Even in retirement, he never stopped investigating scientific phenomena.

Charles Brush’s inventions – such as his dynamo – were incredible machines, but they were so much more. Those inventions were the product of a child who was born with a singular purpose, and never let being an iconoclast stop him from pursuing that purpose. They are the result of a young man’s inexhaustible dedication to his work, and an industrialist’s fearless determination to bring light to the world.

Which brings us to the article’s title. My favorite author described machines as “the frozen form of a living intelligence.”

 
$120 Per Smartphone in Royalties – Outrageous!

An academic paper claims that the cost for royalties ($120 per phone) is about the same as the cost of the components in a smartphone.  This was accompanied by a number of articles suggesting this was outrageous and unsustainable.  For example see:

* High smartphone patent royalties undermine industry profitability: report 

* The $120 Smartphone Patent Tax: Patent Royalties Cost More Than The Actual Hardware In Your Phone:   This one from my favorite patent Luddite site, Techdirt.

* Smartphone royalties now equal manufacturing costs

The logical flaw underlying all these articles is that the value of products is determined by the amount of physical labor and/or the cost of the underlying materials.  On this basis, the actual material costs of a cell phone are probably less than $5 and the labor (unskilled labor in the US is worth perhaps $10/hr) involved in making the phone might be worth $5, let’s throw in $10 for distribution and the hard costs of a smartphone are about $20.[i]  The rest of the costs are the result of intellectual property, much of which is in the form of patents, but some is in the skilled labor, copyrights and trademarks.  The actual cost of the intellectual property in a smartphone is closer to $380.00.  Much of these costs are hidden.  For instance, when Intel sells a microprocessor they charge you $50, for example, but the labor cost and material cost of the microprocessor is pennies.  The reason they can charge $50 is because of the intellectual property, which means patents.  From an economic point of view you are paying a dollar or so for the manufacturing and $49 in patent royalties.

Another logical flaw in these articles is that this is an unsustainable business model.  First of all the underlying paper points out that sales of smartphones and tablets is now bigger than all the rest of the consumer electronics space, with over a billion smartphones sold in 2013.  Clearly the business model is not falling apart.  Second of all, the cost of Microsoft Office Home and Business 2013 is $219.00 and none of that is manufacturing cost.  The cost of Microsoft Office is essentially all IP (Patents, Copyrights, etc.).  Solidworks, which is 3D CAD software, cost $4000.00 and also has essentially no manufacturing costs, which means you are paying the equivalent of $4000 in royalties.  The argument that the model is unsustainable is absurd.

 

Actual Paper

The paper that started this economic stupidity is The Smartphone Royalty Stack: Surveying Royalty Demands for the Components Within Modern Smartphones.  The paper is clearly designed to sway public and Judicial opinion in a manner that will be beneficial for Intel.  Namely, Intel wants a patent system that emphasizes manufacturing, not inventing.  Another goal of the paper is to get courts to reduce the amount of royalties that inventors receive.

“In particular, there has been significant recent focus on “royalty stacking,” in which the cumulative demands of patent holders across the relevant technology or the device threaten to make it economically unviable to offer the product.”

This statement is absurd on its face, as the paper itself points out.

“The market for smartphones has exploded. Smartphones sales for 2013 topped one billion units globally for the first time ever.  In addition, global revenues for smartphone and tablet sales in 2013 are estimated to have surpassed for the first time revenues for the entire consumer electronics markets (e.g., televisions, audio equipment, cameras, and home appliances).”

Here is the real point that this paper is pushing:

“Further, the available data demonstrate a need for licensees to advocate and courts to rigorously apply methodologies for calculating royalties that focus on the actual value of a claimed invention put in context of the myriad other technologies in a smartphone and the components in which the technologies are implemented.”

I will admit that having courts set royalty rates is not ideal and the results can be squirrelly, which is why eBay  should be reversed.  The courts used to just prohibit the infringer from using the patented technology and then the parties had to work out a deal.  But the Supreme Court decided that enforcing the only right you get with your patent is an injunction – actually it is not an injunction it is an exclusion order requiring the infringer to not trespass on (use) the patent owner’s property.

The paper admits that its methodology is limited and the actual cash cost going to pay royalties could be higher or lower.  For instance, the paper does not track cross licensing, pass through, or patent exhaustion, all of which could significantly reduce the actual royalties paid.  They clearly made an error if they did not account for patent exhaustion.  If patent exhaustion was part of the royalty costs, then almost every high value component’s price is mainly due to patents.  Correctly accounting for patent exhaustion would show a royalty per smartphone closer to the $380.00 per phone as explained above.

The paper is just dishonest when discussing the growth in the number of patents issued and the number of patent lawsuits.  It shows in 20 years the number of patents issued in the US has increased from 100,000 per year to 250,000 per year.  The implication is that this is an absurd increase in the number of issued patents, but if you do the math this turns out to be a 4.75% annual increase, about the same as the increase in worldwide GDP over the same time period.  The paper also shows a graph depicting the number of patent lawsuits exploding around 2011.  This increase is due to the America Invents Act, which limited the joinder of defendants in patent lawsuits.  This has been well documented, as in the article  The America Invents Act at Work – The Major Cause for the Recent Rise in Patent Litigation.  The paper’s failure to point this out is just outright fraud.  The fraud is perpetrated again when the paper points to the increase in the number of NPE lawsuits.  These authors seem to have gotten their training from Al Gore and French economist Thomas Piketty.

 

 


[i] In fact you can buy cell phones for less $30.00 on the Internet.  The cost of materials in a smartphone and a $30 cell phone is essentially the same.  The material costs in a cell phone include the plastic which costs several cents, the metal for the conductors which might be worth a dollar, the silicon which in its raw form is worth almost nothing.

 
PATENT=MONOPOLY – A LEGAL FICTION

The authors (Sven Bostyn and Nicolas Petit) of this paper, PATENT=MONOPOLY – A LEGAL FICTION,  argue that patents are not a monopoly based on standard antitrust analysis.  It is very unusual for an academic paper to take such an unpopular position.  They must have not got the memo that the goal of all academics is to vilify inventors, patents, and property rights.  Below are some the lines I thought were interesting and my comments are below.

“No other IPR is so thoroughly examined and evaluated as a patent.”

No other property right is so expensive, time consuming and expensive to obtain title to.

“In 2011, approximately 1,000,000 patents were granted across the globe.  This would mean that 1,000,000 monopolies would have been created worldwide. This clearly, cannot be true.”

“Competition is very valuable, but innovation is probably equally, if not more, valuable.”

 

My main critique is that they did not explain how patents are a property right or the history of property rights and patents.  Under Locke’s theory of property rights, patents and copyrights are property rights – they are granted because of the creative effort (labor) of the inventor/author.  This was picked up by Sir William Blackstone in his Commentaries, where he affirms that patents and copyrights are property and therefore natural rights.  This was enshrined in the constitution as “securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

 
Gary Boone Inventor of the Microcontroller Dies at 68

Gary Boone invented the microcontroller while working at Texas Instrument in the early 1970s.  I had the good fortune to know Gary Boone in the later part of his life, he had a brilliant mind and was a good friend.  It is sad day for the electronics industry and my heart goes out to his family.

IEEE did an Oral History with Gary that was lost for over a decade. You can see the agility and brilliance of this great inventor’s mind in the interview.  Please read the whole oral history.  Mr. Boone has a number of interesting insights in the interview.  For instance, he states that he invented microcontroller while at Texas Instruments because of boredom.  He was working in a group designing custom Integrated Circuits (ICs).  While designing these chips he began to feel “I’m tired of doing this.  I’m working long hours.  My family is not happy.  I have to find a better way of doing this.”  He also noticed that the basic requirements for all these projects were similar and this led to the idea that a general chip that was programmable could solve multiple customers’ requirements.  He also discusses the resistance in the community to this innovation.

After inventing the microcontroller, he moved to a start-up company, Litronix, that made handheld calculators.  The company was not aggressive about filing patents.  An overseas competitor was able to drive Litronix out of the market because of the differential tax rates, U.S. regulatory rules on consumer warranties, and their weak patent portfolio.

Because Mr. Boone was the inventor of the microcontroller, he ended being involved in numerous patent lawsuits.  This has caused him to have a unique perspective on the patent system.  One of the most interesting points he makes is that design teams often fail to review the patent literature before starting the design process.  Because of this, they often reinvent designs and reviewing patent literature results in better designs.

Gary will be missed by all that knew him.

 
Patents are Natural Rights

I have often pointed out that patents are a natural right under Locke’s theory of property rights.  Locke stated, in modern language, that you own yourself so you have the right to those things you create.  Many detractors have suggested that this absurd.  According to Locke the three chief natural rights are life, liberty, and property.  Locke states that protecting property rights is the main reason for forming governments.

Sec. 124. The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.[1]

Inventions are the result the inventor’s labor and therefore property under Locke.  Property is a natural right, so patents are natural rights.  Despite this logical connection, many people have continued to deny that patents (property rights in inventions) are a natural right.

Locke’s ideas were incorporated in the law of the United States by William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  This treatise became the basis of common law in the US.  Here is what Blackstone said about patents and copyrights (intellectual property).  Note that he cites Locke’s ideas on property rights for his explanation for why intellectual property is Property.

There is still another species of property, which (if it subsists by the common law) being grounded on labour and invention is more properly reducible to the head of occupancy than any other; since the right of occupancy itself is supposed by Mr. Locke, and many others, to be founded on the personal labour of the occupant. And this is the right, which an author may be supposed to have in his own original literary compositions; so that no other person without his leave may publish or make profit of the copies. When a man by the exertion of his rational powers has produced an original work, he seems to have clearly a right to dispose of that identical work as he pleases, and any attempt to vary the disposition he has made of it, appears to be an invasion of that right.

Now the identity of a literary composition consists entirely in the sentiment and the language: the same conceptions, clothed in the same words, must necessarily be the same composition: and whatever method be taken of exhibiting that composition to the ear or the eye of another, by recital, by writing, or by printing, in any number of copies, or at any period of time, it is always the identical work of the author which is so exhibited; and no other man (it hath been thought) can have a right to exhibit it, especially for profit, without the author’s consent.

This consent may perhaps be tacitly given to all mankind, when, an author suffers his work to be published by another hand, without any claim or reserve of right, and without stamping on it any marks of ownership; it being then a present to the public, like building a church or bridge, or laying out a new highway: but, in case the author sells a single book, or totally grants the copyright, it hath been supposed, in the one case, that the buyer hath no more right to multiply copies of that book for sale, than he hath to imitate for the like purpose the ticket which is bought for admission to an opera or a concert, and that, in the other, the whole property, with all it’s exclusive rights, is perpetually transferred to the grantee.

On the other hand it is urged, that though the exclusive property of the manuscript, and all which it contains, undoubtedly belongs to the author, before it is printed or published; yet from the instant of publication, the exclusive right of an author or his assigns to the sole communication of his ideas immediately vanishes and evaporates; as being a right of too subtile and unsubstantial a nature to become the subject of property at the common law, and only capable of being guarded by positive statutes and special provisions of the magistrate.

The Roman law adjudged, that if one man wrote any thing on the paper or parchment of another, the writing should belong to the owner of the blank materials meaning thereby the mechanical operation of writing, for which it directed the scribe to receive a satisfaction; for in works of genius and invention, as in painting on another man’s canvas, the same law gave the canvas to the painter. As to any other property in the works of the understanding, the law is silent; though the sale of literary copies, for the purposes of recital or multiplication, is certainly as antient as the times of Terence, Martial, and Statius. Neither with us in England hath there been (till very lately) any final determination upon the right of authors at the common law.

But whatever inherent copyright might have been supposed to subsist by the common law, the statute 8 Ann. c. 19 hath now declared that the author and his assigns shall have the sole liberty of printing and reprinting his works for the term of fourteen years, and no longer; and hath also protected that property by additional penalties and forfeitures: directing farther, that if, at the end of that term, the author himself be living, the right shall then return to him for another term of the same duration: and a similar privilege is extended to the inventors of prints and engravings, for the term of eight and twenty years, by the statute 8 Geo. II. c. 13, and 7 Geo. III. c. 38, besides an action for damages, with double costs, by statute 17 Geo. III. c. 57. All which parliamentary protections appear to have been suggested by the exception in the statute of monopolies, 21 Jac., I. c. 3, which allows a royal patent of privilege to be granted for fourteen years to any inventor of a new manufacture, for the sole working or making of the same; by virtue whereof it is held, that a temporary property therein becomes vested in the king’s patentee. (emphasis added)

 

The idea that patents are a natural right is incorporated in early American law as the quote below shows.

“we protect intellectual property, the labors of the mind, productions and interests as much a man’s own, and as much the fruit of his honest industry, as the wheat he cultivates, or the flocks he rears.” (Davoll v. Brown, 7 F. Cas. 197, 199 [C.C.D. Mass. 1845].)

It is just obstinance or disingenuousness to suggest that patents are not part of natural rights.

 


[1] The Second Treatise of Civil Government; 1690; John Locke; CHAP. IX., Of the Ends of Political Society and Government.

 

A recent study report on PatentlyO  clearly shows that President Obama and the histrionic chorus of the surge in lawsuits by Patent Assertion Entities (Mythical Patent Creations) is just not true.  Changes in the law under the American Invents Act (AIA) that prohibited the joinder of defendants for the infringement of the same patent are the only reason for any apparent change and this was a known outcome of the AIA.  The complete paper “Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) Under the Microscope: An Empirical Investigation of Patent Holders as Litigants” can be downloaded here.

 

 

Cotropia, Christopher Anthony and Kesan, Jay P. and Schwartz, David L., Patent Assertion Entities (PAEs) Under the Microscope: An Empirical Investigation of Patent Holders as Litigants (November 10, 2013). Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science Paper No. LBSS14-20; Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 14-17. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2346381

 
What is not Economic Growth: Consumption and Destruction

Now that we have some idea of what wealth and economic growth are, let’s look at some examples of what is not economic growth.  When Tony slaughters a cow and eats it he has consumed some of his wealth.  He has one less cow, but he has food in his belly that he needs to live.  Is he wealthier now?  Well he needs food to eat in order sustain his life.  If he starves to death, he is certainly not wealthier.  However, Tony now has less of what he needs to sustain his life in the future.  Wealth is the surplus above what one needs to live today.  Consumption is not wealth.  Interestingly, being overweight was traditionally considered an indicator of wealth.  The excess fat meant you could sustain yourself without eating for longer because you could not find food, or because you were sick and could not hold food down.  In fact, it was fashionable for women and men to be overweight in the 1700 and 1800s.  Fat was an indicator of wealth, both because the person could sustain themselves without food longer and because it indicated that the person had plenty of food, compared to the calories they consumed.  In societies that live on the edge of starvation or what is called the Malthusian Trap, being overweight is a source of wealth.

               The Malthusian Trap is named after Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766 -1836), who postulated that human population would always grow faster than the food supply, dooming humans to subsistence living, i.e., living on the edge of starvation.  Oddly enough Malthus was correct until about the time he died.  The advent of the Industrial Revolution changed this situation; first for the people of England and the US, then the West and today for at least half of the world’s population.  The economist Gregory Clark has shown that policies to alleviate human suffering in a non-Malthusian Trap economy just result in additional misery in a Malthusian economy.[1]

Another example of what is not economic growth, but our present GDP measurements do count as increases in wealth is known as the broken window fallacy.  This was first explained by the French economist Frederick Bastiat (1801-1850).  The fallacy is explained by this story.  A window to your house is broken by a windstorm and you hire window installer to fix it, the window installer and the person who makes windows have additional work and income.  The window installer is wealthier, but is this economic growth?  The house is now in the same position it was before the window was broken, but you are out the cost of the window.  The amount of profit the window installer has made is less than you paid, because window installer has costs, such as the cost of the gas to get to your house, the cost of the glass.  Even adding up the profits of all the people the window installer paid does not add up to the cost you paid for the window.  The reason for this is we have to consume food and other resources to stay alive as we discussed above.  What this means is that your broken window has actually resulted in less wealth not more.  This is not surprising.  If our fisherman, Randy’s boat is damaged he is not wealthier.  Even after he fixes his boat, he lost out on time he could have been fishing.  Destruction does not create wealth, it reduces it.  Unfortunately, you will hear politicians and economists talk about natural disaster causing economic growth all the time.  An article in NPR discussing Superstorm Sandy that hit the U.S. northeast in 2012 stated:

But there may be a silver lining to all that destruction: Some economists argue that reconstruction from Sandy could help stimulate the national economy in 2013.[2]

The reason economists are confused about whether destruction causes economic growth is that our measurement of the GDP does not count the destruction of property and life.  This is like the gambler who only counts his winning.


[1] Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark, Princeton University Press 2000.

[2] Could Post-Superstorm Sandy Rebuilding Energize The Economy?, by Joel Rose, NPR, December 31, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/12/31/168363901/could-post-superstorm-sandy-rebuilding-energize-the-economy.

 
George Reisman: Are Objectivist Economists Consistent with Rand?

It is my contention that classical economics is not completely consistent with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy and even economists who are Objectivists have failed to provide an economic theory that is consistent with her ideas.  For instance, George Reisman is one of the well known economists associated with Objectivism and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Pepperdine University.  In his book Capitalism on page 40 he states:

Patents … derive their market value from the fact that they make it possible for the intellectual creators of new and additional wealth to benefit from their contributions by temporarily limiting the increase in wealth that their intellectual contributions bring about.

Now how does Dr. Reisman square his ideas with Rand on this subject?  Dr. Reisman later states that patents increase the supply of goods, so he appears to be somewhat inconsistent.  But on page 449 he states:

Intangible assets (patents) no more constitute capital than they constitute wealth.

Dr. Reisman does define wealth in Chapter 2 as material goods made by man.  So it is consistent with his definition, but how does he square this with Rand who states in Galt’s speech:

He cannot obtain his food without knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch––or build a cyclotron––without a knowledge of his aim and the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.”  Rand 1992, p. 1012.

An example might be useful.  Joe is a builder and knows how to make concrete but is not presently making concrete.  Is he wealthier than Jim who is a builder, in essentially the same position as Joe, but Jim does not know how to make (or get) concrete?  Clearly Joe is wealthier.  I think Reisman’s definition of wealth is flawed.

I also think it is inconsistent with Ayn Rand, who in Capitalism the Unknown Ideal, states:

Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.[1]

Is the value of a building worth more in a country with property rights or one without property rights?  In the property rights country, the owner can collateralize his property, he can obtain income from his property without having to hire thugs to enforce his rights, he can justify investing in improvements in this building.  In both cases there is the same material good, but the value is totally different.  Property rights are wealth, their contribution to wealth is secondary to the underlying asset, i.e., the building or the invention.

My main problem with classical economics or Austrian economics is they have not built a system around the fact that man’s main tool of survival is his mind.  That is the source of his wealth and the only source of real per capita increases in income/wealth.


[1] Rand, Ayn, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Signet, New York, 1967, p. 130.

 
What is economic growth?

What is economic growth?  We all think we know the answer to this question.  It’s when GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is growing or positive, would be a typical answer.  That is an abstract answer for most of us.  We tend to focus more on the likely results of a growing economy, such as there are more high paying, high quality jobs; you are more likely to receive a raise above the inflation rate; you are more likely to have more money in your bank account; your access to education, health care, quality of food, etc. generally increase.  But if population growth is 5% and GDP growth is only 2% then none of these good things happen.  What we are interested in is real per capita increases in wealth.

              But what is wealth?  Is it the number of digits in your bank account, how many dollars you have in your pocket, how many dollars your 401K is worth?  The people in Venezuela have seen a huge increase in the number of digits in their bank accounts, and the number of dollars (Bolivars) in their pockets have increased, however they are getting poorer.  So did the people in the Weirmar Republic in the early 1920s, many of whom were billionaires (in Marks).  Wealth cannot be confused with the amount of currency (Dollars, Bolivars, Marks) one has.

Using currencies to denote wealth often causes confusion.  Let’s look at some examples separate from currency.  Image a farmer, we’ll call him Tony.  Tony has two cows, a dirt house with a thatch roof and no running water or electricity.  A year later Tony has ten cows and running water.  Clearly Tony is now wealthier than he was a year ago.  In fact, the quantity of livestock one owns has been a traditional indicator of wealth in many societies.  Wealth means having more of the things necessary to sustain one’s life.  But people in the US and the West are not like Tony, most of these people have more than they could possible need to sustain their life –right?  Actually, no.  A rational person, let’s call him Randy, does not just worry about whether they have enough food for today.  Randy’s a fisherman and just because he catches enough fish to feed his family today, does not mean he should stop fishing.  What if the fish are not biting tomorrow?  What if there is a storm tomorrow and he cannot fish?  What if his boat needs repairs and he cannot fish for a week?  Because Randy is rational he keeps fishing even after he has caught enough fish to feed his family that day, if there are fish to be caught and the day is not over.

But the average American, call him Sam, is not like Tony or Randy.  Sam has so much to eat he is overweight.  He is wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of Tony or Randy.  He lives in a nice house, has running water, electricity, three televisions, five cell phones, why should Sam care about being wealthier?  Well what if Sam gets sick and can’t work, what if he loses his job, what if his car breaks down, what if his child gets accepted to Harvard?  Only the uber wealthy have enough wealth to meet all their needs for the rest of their lives.  When you consider that a prolonged hospital stay can cost over million dollars, it would require a net worth in today’s economy of around ten million dollars or more.  All except the uber wealthy have a rational desire for economic growth (i.e., increasing wealth) and even the uber wealthy benefit from the new technologies and opportunities provided by economic growth.

 
How to Fix the Economy: USA falls to 17th on Index of Economic Freedom

Ever wonder why the US has a record number of people on food stamps now, why the median family income is declining, why the labor participation rate is the lowest since Jimmy Carter?  You need look no farther than the fact that the US has fallen from 2nd or 3rd in 2000 in the Cato/Fraser index of economic freedom to 17th.  It is not just our economic freedom we are losing as the NSA and IRS scandals make clear.  This is not just an academic exercise either.  As the report makes clear longevity, access to medical care, education opportunities etc all deteriorate with a declining of economic freedoms.

The irony of this report is that the CATO Institute has been inconsistent at best about supporting property rights, which is the key issue underlying economic freedom.  CATO has adopted a utilitarian basis for “property rights” that suggests they are just a useful artifact for efficiently distributing scarce resources.  So in fact, they do not support property rights but property grants or privileges.  This also means that they are confused that patents are not property rights.  Patents are the single most important property right to economic growth, especially in a developed country.  CATO is therefore in the position of being for property rights at an empirical level, but arguing against them on a philosophical level.  Interestingly this also means that CATO is inconsistent about supporting our Constitution, which requires that Congress secure the rights of inventors to their inventions.  No wonder the US is an economic basket case.

 

I have written extensively on the problems I see with IPXI’s model to market licensing rights to patents.  Their model is based on a commodities contracts type of model, where unit licensing rights can be bought and traded.  I believe a model based on how Amazon sells books would be more effective and open up the patent licensing market to smaller entities and inventors.  This sort of retail licensing system would allow inventors to post an invention that they are willing to license with a unit licensing rate for one instance of the invention.  For software enabled inventions the unit licensing rate might be based on a per execution basis or a time limited period.  The retail licensing system would issue a certificate that the licensor would use to prove that they had bought a license and only be good for one instance or execution.  It is my assumption that the unit licensing rates would be so low that it would be easier to license the invention than infringe.  The license would not come with any warranties of validity or non-infringement, but would come with a warranty of ownership of an issued patent.  In addition, there might be bulk unit licensing discounts and a chance for the inventor to sell their engineering talent to help implement the invention.

This system would reduce the cost of licensing.  Avoid some of the problems of IPXIs model, such as having a limited number of unit licenses and it would open up the market to individual inventors and small entities and spark an inventive wave that we would all profit from.

 

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