Sunday, March 08, 2020


The 10 richest men of all time
  • Mansa Musa (1280-1337, king of the Mali empire) wealth indescribable
  • Augustus Caesar (63 BC-14 AD, Roman emperor) $4.6tn (£3.5tn)
  • Zhao Xu (1048-1085, emperor Shenzong of Song in China) wealth incalculable
  • Akbar I (1542-1605, emperor of India's Mughal dynasty) wealth incalculable
  • Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919, Scottish-American industrialist) $372bn
  • John D Rockefeller (1839-1937) American business magnate) $341bn
  • Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov (1868-1918, Tsar of Russia) $300bn
  • Mir Osman Ali Khan ( 1886-1967, Indian royal) $230bn
  • William The Conqueror (1028-1087) $229.5bn
  • Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011, long-time ruler of Libya) $200bn
Source:, Celebrity Net Worth (found at Marginal Revolution).
Two of the all-time top ten are well known American capitalists. The other eight perhaps a bit unsavory. Note that inequality warriors presume that all wealth is a sure sign of bad behavior. This often works. Non-zerosum is subtle and envy runs deep and is exploited by politicians.

We know that Carnegie and Rockefeller did us much good -- just like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. But they are suspect nevertheless. "Robber Barons" is the unfortunate term routinely applied by those who think we live in a zero-sum world.

Innovators, on average, get about 4% of the wealth they create (Nordhaus). A better prepared Michael Bloomberg might have tried this approach. Would many in the audience and celeb interviewers have fainted?

The Economist reviews Thomas Piketty's latest and notes "... it is hard to to conclude that, deep down, Mr. Piketty believes the worth of a society is measured by its Gini coefficient." He and many others.


Billionaires and super-billionaires.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Because they can

I never took the Stanford Marshmallow test but presume that I am patient.  The current issue of The Economist notes that transportation in Los Angeles ought to involve more buses and less rail transit -- and also congestion pricing on the freeways. Finally.

Tom Rubin sent this:

Image preview

It is hard to fathom the bizarreness of the situation but the graphic helps. While $20-$25 billion have been spent on rail transit in LA county since the mid-1980s, transit use is down -- while the area's population is up by over 1 million (many of them low-income immigrants). It boggles and it would be hard to engineer a worse outcome but our social engineers are at work.

It's about anti-car greenness and all of the silliness that the romantics conjure -- while in bed with those on the receiving end of all the billions.  Drive down LA's Wilshire Blvd right now and observe subway work in progress. Bootleggers and Baptists having a party.

Beyond LA, politicians from both U.S. parties borrow and spend because they can. There are no bond market signals that the world is tiring of ever more U.S. debt. Pres Trump just sent Congress a budget proposal. The only contest will be over who gets the most pork.

Arnold Kling recently posted that there are 13 countries in the world with populations over 100 million. He mentions that all except the U.S. and Japan are "very authoritarian, incompetent, or both."
Both of these countries' treasuries are heavily in debt. What Americans can hope for is to remain the tallest pygmy.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Be careful out there

Watching last night's State of the Union was not easy. With cameras on and the nation watching, preening and pandering were on full display.  That's our democracy (our politics). Some of the post-event talking heads, who were obliged to say something cited perennial stats about the low esteem/low approval that the public accords to "Congress."  But that's a silly view in light of the fact that these guys get re-elected at astoundingly high rates, mostly in the 90-percent range, always over 80-percent, year after year.

It's simple to reconcile the two points. People's view of Congress is almost irrelevant.  But people tend to like "their guy". Or he/she becomes their guy by "bringing home the bacon". After all, incumbents have to make it their business to know their constituents and also what buttons to push. It's a simple point. Consider the players, not the categories.

On a similar theme, a favorite political topic is "worsening" income inequality. But the bulk of the arguments made compare snapshots of different groups over time, not the progress of real people over time. Even better, what is inter- generational mobility? What are the odds that someone born at the bottom can move to the top? Where and when?

Data are great but a some judgment is always essential. Big Data alone cannot do the job.


Here is a brief post about the anomaly of people who trust their government less but want it to do more.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The romance and the news

It's election season and we see sides of human nature that are not pretty. Seeking votes, candidates make promises they cannot keep. Voters chose to suspend disbelief. Many seek to be on a winning team.

Americans (and others) enjoy prosperity that is out of all proportion to the other-worldliness of their politics. Davies writes: "People alive today, even the poor, are the luckiest people in human history." This is in spite of what happens in their politics and government. The markets (and the culture that supports them) must be formidable. McCloskey spells it out.

We vote with our wallets, with our feet, with our voices, our ballots, etc. Problems of voting with ballots have been well studied via a considerable body of public choice analysis. Yet, this approach remains beyond "mainstream" economics because it undermines so many "market failure" analyses. How many scholarly papers have posited an implausible model of "perfect" markets, found that perfect ("nirvana economics") is unlikely and proposed a policy fix?

Public choice notes the limitations of voting. Intensities of preference are ignored. Rational ignorance is expected. Voter turnout is low. Interest groups have an advantage and often win. We get large deficits, large bureaucracies, large cronyism, etc. Buchanan famously told reporters that his contribution was all about "politics without romance." Yet, there remain many romantics who expect that voting aggregates and transmits preferences.

Briefly compare voting for President to shopping. You get one vote every four years. You transmit how many personal preferences? Vote or nor? Vote for D or for R? Contribute money or not? Contribute to D or to R? Contribute time or not? Contribute time to D or to R.  I see between one and six choice points.

But how many household shopping trips per week?  This site says about 1.6. How many items purchased per trip? Let's say 10. How many aspects of each purchase matter? Let's s say price and familiarity and quantity/size. Roughly, 2,500 decisions per household per year.  There are probably many more. We're pretty good when thinking fast so all this is easily manageable. Sellers know the story and are incentivized to make it simple and manageable and even appealing. Go to a state liquor store (if you state has them) and quickly see the contrast.

We have a much better chance of making our preferences known (and counted) in the market than in our democracy. Not everyone votes (for obvious reasons) but those who do, enjoy the romance. I get that. But I also see/read the news.