The theory of monopolies

Book 5, Chapter 14

§1. “It has never been supposed that the monopolist in seeking his own advantage is naturally guided in that course which is most conducive to the wellbeing of society” p 395.

§2. Monopoly revenue (as opposed to “rents,” which Marshall reserves for excess profits from access to scare resources) exceeds production, debt and risk costs.

§3. Marshall uses a figure to show that the monopolist earns the greatest profit at a combination of price and quantity. Since higher prices mean lower quantities (and vice versa), this combination is in a “sweet spot.”

§4. The monopoly’s behavior does not change with lump sum taxes or percentage taxes on profits. A tax (or subsidy) on output quantities or prices will change the profit-maximising quantity.

§5. Although one might assume a monopoly will charge a higher price and provide a lower quantity than a group of competitive firms (modern economics texts do), that assumption would be wrong if competing firms have extra costs from trying to win each other’s customers or lack economies of scale. OTOH, a lazy monopolist may not look for cost savings compared to competing firms, so there’s no easy answer. (Marshall compares a monopoly railway to competing railways — a mix the British are still struggling with!)

§6. The monopolist might lower prices in the short run to encourage more demand (more customers, consuming more) in the long run.

§7. A monopolist who takes consumer surplus into consideration will sell a larger quantity at a lower price.

§8. Producers and individual consumers know their surplus, but the overall situation of consumers is to know, which makes it hard to set policy without better statistics:

Much of the failure and much of the injustice, in which the economic policies of governments have resulted, have been due to the want of statistical measurement. A few people who have been strongly interested on one side have raised their voices loudly, persistently and all together; while little has been heard from the great mass of people whose interests have lain in the opposite direction; for, even if their attention has been fairly called to the matter, few have cared to exert themselves much for a cause in which no one of them has more than a small stake. The few therefore get their way, although if statistical measures of the interests involved were available, it might prove that the aggregate of the interests of the few was only a tenth or a hundredth part of the aggregate of the interests of the silent many (p 407)

In the paragraph that follows, Marshall offers a charming (or naive) hope:

It is perhaps not unreasonable to hope that as time goes on, the statistics of consumption will be so organized as to afford demand schedules sufficiently trustworthy, to show in diagrams that will appeal to the eye, the quantities of consumers’ surplus that will result from different courses of public and private action. By the study of these pictures the mind may be gradually trained to get juster notions of the relative magnitudes of the interests which the community has in various schemes of public and private enterprise (p 408).

Sadly, economists have been unable to generate reliable demand schedules, so most policy discussions depend on special interests, political guesswork, and duelling economists.

§9. Two adjacent monopolies (e.g., for copper and zinc, both needed for brass) might be worse than a merged monopoly for society if their attempts to dominate each other disrupts markets. That said, a merged monopoly will be worse if it can more easily block new competition than separate (weaker) monopolies. Caveat regulator.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. On grifters:”American self-conception, that wobbly construct, has long depended on a good amount of delusional entitlement
  2. A young Dutchman goes to India, “sees the light” and sets himself up in the US as a guru: “But the joy they derived from the videos was hallucinatory, dissociative, fleeting. When they looked away from the screen, they were once again faced with the reality of their lives. So they went back online.”  Abuse follows, and he’s not the last: “Over the past decade or so, Burton added, the internet has broadened and intensified this dynamic. Online spiritual communities offer a safe and exploratory experience for those who feel marginalized, alienated or exiled from traditional religions. As in the 20th century, these new spiritual movements are often met with condescension and fear. But while the low-barrier-to-entry of spirituality online means that vulnerable seekers are at risk of being exploited by a larger pool of ideologues, narcissists, and charlatans, Burton emphasized that spiritual communities on social media are mostly just filling a void.”
  3. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, is pretty cool
  4. A 240-year history of (not so) free trade in the US, in 22 minutes
  5. Project Gutenberg has over 60,000 free e-books (I like Agatha Christie) and a great attitude: “If you do not charge anything for copies of this eBook, complying with the rules is very easy. You may use this eBook for nearly any purpose such as creation of derivative works, reports, performances and research. They may be modified and printed and given away–you may do practically ANYTHING in the United States with eBooks not protected by U.S. copyright law.”
  6. The Deltaworks are the “wonder of the world” protecting the Netherlands from floods — for now.
  7. Investigating the corruption behind Beirut’s huge (and deadly) explosion
  8. The story of a white Boston orphan who ran a Chinese drug gang
  9. A neighborhood in Rome: Its people and bar-life during COVID
  10. Mammals have a lot more in common than I thought #NoHumanExceptions

Theory of changes of normal demand and supply in relation to the doctrine of maximum satisfaction

Book 5, Chapter 13

§1. Gradual changes in demand and supply result in gradual changes (=slides) in price or quantity. Larger changes due to novel tastes, technologies, goods, etc. (=shifts in D or S) will be more disruptive. Marshall’s mix of slides and shifts can be confusing for those new to D & S  figures.

§2. Marshall combines short and long-run supply curves in a way that might seem confusing to those of us taught about supply in the short run (technology and economies of scale are fixed) as compared to the long run (economies of scale can be altered because all costs are variable).

But I think his figures do a better job at explaining level (fig 24), rising (fig 25) and falling (fig 26) prices, via, respectively, constant (CRS), decreasing (DRS) and increasing returns to scale (IRS) that change the supply curve.

Marshall also mentions that IRS are more likely in immature industries where technology and markets are developing. He points out that tariffs to protect “infant industries” might indeed help both suppliers and consumers but warns that most tariffs protect mature (DRS) industries whose prices will rise if foreign supply (competition) is cut.

§3. So prices might rise, fall or not move with an increase in demand.

§4. Marshall investigates the impact of price changes on consumer surplus (CS) with the examples of taxes and subsidies (“bounties”). Without calling it “deadweight loss” (DWL), he explains how a tax — given constant returns, i.e., a flat supply curve — will reduce CS by the amount of the tax (a transfer) as well as the triangular DWL formed by the Δp reducing quantity demanded. A bounty produces the same “disproportionate” CS change in favor of the consumer. In examples with decreasing or increasing returns to scale, Marshall points out at that a tax (bounty) will reduce (increase) costs in such a way as to diminish (expand) the cost of the tax to the treasury.

Marshall notes the tradeoff between tax efficiency (loss of CS) vs fairness (ability to bear):

The net loss aKA is small or great, other things being equal, as aA [the demand curve] is or is not inclined steeply. Thus it [the DWL] is smallest for those commodities the demand for which is most inelastic, that is, for necessaries. If therefore a given aggregate taxation has to be levied ruthlessly from any class it will cause less loss of consumers’ surplus if levied on necessaries than if levied on comforts; though of course the consumption of luxuries and in a less degree of comforts indicates ability to bear taxation. p 387

§5. Marshall notes that “maximum satisfaction” will occur where D and S cross, since both consumers and producers gain from exchange up to that point, with their joint surplus represented by the area above the supply curve and below the demand curve (e.g., the area DSA in fig 24). This is Economics 1.

Marshall then explains how it may be possible to further increase surplus in two cases. First, an increase in quantity supplied when costs are stable (CRS) but benefits are rising (elastic D) might increase total surplus, even if there’s a loss to producers. He gives the example of the benefit to the poor of cheaper food. He also mentions the conventional “solution” to this problem: taxing the rich to subsidize the poor (“lump sum transfer”). Second, he suggests that it may be useful to subsidize production in the case of increasing returns to scale, since that might bring forth so much supply, at lower prices, as to make consumers so much better off as to justify the cost of the subsidy.

§6. Marshall suggests a community might increase its wealth by taxing DRS producers to subsidize IRS producers before listing many “moral” concerns with such a plan, e.g., producers lobbying for subsidies.

§7. A shilling in the hand of a poor person is worth more (happiness) than a shilling in the hand of a rich one, just as one’s spending on DRS-goods harms neighbors (by contributing to higher costs) than spending on IRS-goods. Combined, these examples should convince readers that an ad valorem tax is not — as often asserted [at the time] — “neutral” in its effects on either consumption or production. Thus he cautions against over-confident government “interference” into markets and prices.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. My “sound” is your “noise” and other problems with noise pollution
  2. This speech by Jack Ma (founder of Alibaba, one of the richest people in China) on China’s tech development, regulation, etc. is worth reading, due to his statue and the government’s reaction to it (delaying what would have been a record-breaking IPO of Ant Financial).
  3. Physical book quality is falling as “print on demand” spreads
  4. Use this tool to see how to decarbonize the economy (hint, carbon tax is way more effective than banning coal…)
  5. How the US can leave fossil fuels behind
  6. The Big Lessons From History
  7. A debate over the future of capitalism, in which “doughnut economic aspirations” appear but fail (no surprise) in the face of confusion about the differences between markets and government.
  8. Friends or colleagues having trouble with “science” (climate change, COVID, vaccines)? Use the “Denialist playbook” to dissect, understand and refute (?) them.
  9. TikTok is an eternal channel flip
  10. Future geopolitics will change as economic weight moves from “West to East”

Equilibrium of normal demand and supply, continued, with reference to the law of increasing return

Book 5, Chapter 12

§1. Quantity demanded nearly always* moves in the opposite direction of its price. It’s best to assume that price leads to quantity demanded rather than the other way around.

* Marshall adds the caveat of: [ignoring] “exceptional cases in which a thing is driven out of fashion by a fall in its price,” which refers to Giffen Veblen goods whose demand rises with price due to the exclusivity conveyed by higher prices.

Switching to supply, Marshall asserts that expected quantity drives price by establishing the scale of production. Manufacturers expecting to sell a lot of widgets will install more (high fixed cost, low marginal cost) capacity than when they expect to sell few widgets. This dynamic holds in the long run. In the short run, there’s a chance that higher prices can increase quantity for sale, but that’s usually the result of depleting inventories.

§2. The circumstances and longevity of individual firms are less predictable than the circumstances of an entire industry. Firms come and go; their markets endure.

§3. Progress over time within an industry is equivalent to increasing returns to scale, which means that prices are falling with capacity. Analysts looking for [static] equilibria will miss this dynamic. Many modern economics texts focus so closely on equilibrium (or perhaps equilibria moving over time) that they miss the reality of evolving markets. Damn.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Short selling to take down bad companies
  2. The future? “Imagine if men could have the diversity of sexual experience of Genghis Khan, Muhammad, or John F. Kennedy without actually achieving anything. Sex robots are about to make the virtual world even more alluring.
  3. This article captures the mentality of many Trump supporters: “The fact that the leader of one of our two parties—the party, in fact, that has for many decades represented what was normal, acceptable, and respectable—was not ashamed to reveal his own selfishness, was not ashamed to reveal his own indifference to the suffering of others, was not even ashamed to reveal his own cheerful enjoyment of cruelty…all of this helped people to feel that they no longer needed to be ashamed of those qualities in themselves either. They didn’t need to feel bad because they didn’t care about other people. Maybe they didn’t want to be forbearing toward enemies. Maybe they didn’t want to be gentle or kind. In a world in which the rich want permission to take as much as they can get without feeling any shame, and many of the not-rich are so worried about their own sinking fortunes that they find it hard to worry about the misery of anyone else, Trump is the priest who grants absolution.
  4. Sean Connery, RIP
  5. Macron defends free speech (unlike many cowardly “leaders”): “The polities of France’s historical allies, notably the United States and the United Kingdom, have degenerated into various species of illiberalism. There is the right-populist form that currently holds power in those places—and also the left-authoritarian form that dominates many cultural institutions and buys into the lie that when a terror cell with automatic weapons assassinates an office full of humble caricaturists, it is the latter who are the oppressors. That lie is at least as attractive in the English-speaking world now as it was in 2015.”
  6. Cancel culture is much worse than critical culture
  7. The China bubble that never pops
  8. Social media has empowered “deplorables” against elites: “I would not say that our institutions are mired in a period of secular incompetence and decline. That is actually true, but I wouldn’t use those words. I would say that our institutions are structurally (and, I believe, catastrophically) mal-adapted to the new information environment, and that the people who run them are both unable and unwilling to reform them.”
  9. Steve Levitt (Freakonomics) on “making a difference” as an economist​​​​​​​
  10. Overgeneralizing affairs: Men have them to reclaim manliness; women to complete their relations.

Review: The Classical School: The Birth of Economics in 20 Enlightened Lives

I bought this 2020 book by Callum Williams after I heard this podcast with him.

I like reading history of economic thought books because it’s interesting to see how economics has evolved over the centuries and useful to compare cumulative misunderstandings with what long-dead thinkers actually said. (That’s why I am reading and blogging on Alfred Marshall’s 1920 Principles of Economics.)

Adam Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations (WoN) is widely considered to mark the start of economics, although it was then called “moral philosophy” before changing to “political-economy” in the 1800s and “economics” in the 1900s (roughly).

Overall, I found this book to be interesting, but not nearly as inspiring as the classic Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, which has been in print since Heilbroner published it in 1953. Williams has a tough act to follow.

In this review (as usual), I offer thoughts based on highlights and notes I made while reading.

  • Economics — the study of markets, choices, prices, etc. — became a useful topic when capitalism started to displace feudalism. Double-entry bookkeeping was invented during the Renaissance and used by merchants in Italian city-states. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. Economists brought the supply to meet these demands 😉
  • One early school of economics was mercantilist, which believes that it’s best to trade goods for gold rather than other goods. Colbert (1619-1683) imposed this win-lose trade policy on France in the 17th century and made the country much poorer. (Trump has a mercantilist obsession with trade balances.)
  • Mercantilists are right to focus on employment, but they used wasteful and  ineffective tools (high tariffs on imported goods and subsidies to domestic producers) to protect jobs. (Better to boost domestic employment by helping start-ups identify comparative advantages and grow.)
  • 18th century calculations of economic activity (GDP was not invented until the 1930s) were biased in favor of labor over land. The landed classes supported this bias as a way shifting taxes from land onto labor; see my post of property taxes.
  • Theory and data are often at odds. Data can be useful or biased (anecdata, missing variables, bad measurement). Theory can persist long after it has been empirically falsified.
  • Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733) wrote that the rich created jobs by consuming luxuries in the Fable of the Bees (1705). He also worried that an ultra-capitalist society would have weak morals. He was right.
  • Richard Cantillion (1670-1734) focussed on cause and effect, ceteris paribus (“all other things held equal”) and trade-offs, i.e., opportunity costs. He also raised an important question (“it is better to have a great multitude of Inhabitants, poor and badly provided, than a smaller number, much more at their ease”?) that Jeremy Bentham (“the greatest good for the greatest number“) later flubbed, as there are always tradeoffs [page 38].
  • Cities grow on the productivity that specialization, innovation and competition bring to deeper, broader markets. They fail when the commons (public health, crime, etc.) are weak. Economics did not pay attention to these failures until the 20th century, with the work of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, among others.
  • `The Scottish universities were superior to the English ones, where [Adam] Smith complained that “the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching”‘ [page 58].
  • Adam Smith (1723-1790) built the foundation for WoN with his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which focussed on our social (non-market) selves: `“We endeavour”, Smith says, “to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it.” In invoking this ghostly projection, Smith presents people as fundamentally social beings’ [page 59]. Smith, a member of the Scottish Enlightenment, was implicitly attacking God-given morality, which was not easy back then.
  • `The Wealth of Nations achieves something that no other work had quite done before. It clearly brings out the idea of an “economy” –- a self-regulating system of exchange, which is subject to its own natural laws” (page 66). I say the same of Bitcoin, which I consider a new species.
  • The debate over value vs cost in determining price was not resolved for decades. Marx was not alone in proposing the labor theory of value (a good’s value depended on the embedded labor needed to produce it). The joint-determination of price (as the two blades of scissors) via the interaction of cost (supply) and value (demand) was a real achievement for economics, even if many people today still don’t understand it.
  • Inflation makes it hard to see prices as an indicator of value or cost.
  • Who creates value? Workers, capitalists, landowners? Economists who backed one group (cynically or thoughtfully) would be attacked by the others, since political support went to those seen to be creating value.
  • Poverty is both absolute (are you hungry?) and relative (does your neighbor have better food?). Stop arguing for one definition.
  • Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794) wanted people to respect each others’ views and advocated reading novels for this. I agree that people need constant reminders that their subjectivity is not reality.
  • David Ricardo (1772-1823) is credited with defining “rents” as the excess (or unearned) profits derived from possession of a productive resource. He used land as an example, but rents also arise with fossil fuels, minerals, intellectual property, and so on. Monopoly profits are often called “rents” by economists, but Alfred Marshall did not use that term for profits derived from market power that will disappear with deregulation, competition or entry. He reserved “rents” for profits arising from natural scarcity.
  • The first 50-100 years of the Industrial Revolution lowered prices for consumers but most of the profits went to capital, not labor. Under those circumstances, Ricardo wanted to repeal the Corn Laws that protected English farmers from competition and raised bread prices, to help the working classes. (They were repealed in 1846.)
  • Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) is known for “supply creates its own demand” by which he meant that economic imbalances (unsold inventory, unemployed workers) would correct over time. He was wrong, but it took 100+ years before Keynes explained failures in aggregate demand.
  • Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) worried about over-population, but he — like the neo-Malthusian Garrett Hardin — favored self-control over  birth control. Failure #1. Malthus also underestimated potential increases in  agricultural productivity, which was just taking off. Failure #2.
  • I had never heard of Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842), but I like his ideas, i.e., that human nature (and thus society) is not universal, but different  among places and eras. Capitalism was not inevitable. Workers were not doomed to suffer poverty. Although his nostalgia for (pre-capitalist) feudalism and guilds would not help the masses, Sismondi was right to want to reduce inequality by redistributing profits from capital to labor. Efficiency and fairness are complements, not substitutes.
  • John Stewart Mill (1806-1873) argued that the value of a good depended on how useful it was (demand), not just scarcity (supply) — a perspective that (correctly) undermined those who argued the labor theory of value.
  • Mill argued for a stationary state of the economy and population over endless growth, in what seems (to me) to be the earliest call for a steady-state economy or degrowth. This perspective evokes the pre-industrial era of a century earlier, but Mill “advocates a stationary state in which a stable population maintains itself at some reasonable average level of material comfort, yet most persons also attach more importance to certain ‘higher pursuits’ than to further labour, investment, and exploitation of natural resources” [p 140]. From this, I see a strong claim for quality over quantity. Indeed, Mill worried about inequality and the working classes. He was right to advocate steep inheritance taxes.
  • Mill was raised in books and developed some idiosyncratic ideas, but that didn’t keep him from important insights and opinions (p 140):

    The real reason Mill loved free trade was not because it made the economy more efficient but because it encouraged people of different backgrounds to talk to one another. “It is hardly possible to overrate the value, for the improvement of human beings, of things which bring them into contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.” Mill continued: “There is no nation which does not need to borrow from others.”

  • Karl Marx (1818-1883) “either did not know about the clear improvements in living standards that were happening all around him or chose to ignore them: From 1849, when Marx moved to London, to 1883, when he died, the average working week fell from 64 hours to 58 hours. Over the same period the average wage did not stay at subsistence level, as Marx predicted. In fact it rose by fully 35% in real terms” p 170.
  • My favorite footnote: “Marxist economists have developed a whole new set of economic terms, none of which is used by mainstream economists. This makes it almost impossible for Marxist and non-Marxist economists to discuss the use of empirical data” (p 278).
  • Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) came from a rich industrial family, so he knew that technology would help produce the food that Malthus thought impossible, but he (and Marx) took Hegelian dialectics too seriously. That’s why the duo predicted an inevitable triumph of communism, why Lenin et al. stubbornly ignored failures, and why millions died needlessly.
  • William Stanley Jevons (1835–1882) preferred “economics” to “political economy,” which differed:

    It is often said that political economy has more sociological and historical elements than dry old economics. The examples of Ricardo and Say, two of the archetypal political economists, undermine that idea. In my view the clearest distinction between political economy and economics is in the use of mathematics. Jevons argued passionately in favour of the systematic incorporation of maths into economic inquiry. (Note that today the term “political economy” tends to refer either to economic analysis with a bit of politics thrown in, or to a more left-leaning sort of economic analysis. Only economists really use this term.) p278.

    A few years ago, I started to call myself a political economist to emphasize my interest in history, institutions and the distribution of surplus. I see too many examples of “economics” depending on mathematical theories and predictions that deviate too far from reality.

  • The “Jeavons Paradox” states that a gain in efficiency in providing a good (e.g., lighting) will lead to more, not less, use of that good. I don’t see much of a paradox when an outward shift in the supply curve (making lighting more affordable) results in higher quantity demanded (the demand curve doesn’t move).
  • Jeavons said if economics “is to be a science at all, then it must be a mathematical science” (p 186). This aspiration is admirable but autistic, since humans do not behave in mathematical (predictable) ways, which means that math-centric models often fail to work. Williams’s summary of this discussion (pp 186-7) is worth quoting:

    Why did the political economists not use much maths [despite having math skills]? … In 1803, [Jean Baptiste] Say referred to “our always being misled in political economy, whenever we have subjected its phenomena to mathematical calculation”. The thinking goes that people are too unpredictable and unreliable for their actions to be reduced to simple equations. Political economy, in Say’s words, is “subject to the influence of the faculties, the wants and the desires of mankind” and therefore is “not susceptible of any rigorous appreciation, and cannot, therefore, furnish any data for absolute calculations”. The question, of course, is how representative were Say’s views. John Elliott Cairnes, a contemporary of Jevons who was a paid-up political economist, rather than an economist, reckoned that many of the data necessary to the mathematical solution of economic problems were too unreliable. Cairnes also worried that mathematics could not be applied to the development of economic truth, “unless it can be shown, either that mental feelings admit of being expressed in precise quantitative forms, or, on the other hand, that economic phenomena do not depend upon mental feelings”. In other words, you cannot quantify feelings like hunger, desire or love. But Jevons came to economics with a different philosophical background. For one thing he was a science nerd.

    … and many science nerds, physicists and engineers have tried — and failed — to reproduce economic dynamics in mathematical, statistical, game theoretic, or mass-balance models. (Today, they are pursuing big data, machine learning and agent-based simulations.) They have failed, in ways large and small, due to an inability to capture chaotic, complex human interactions. Maybe they are not wasting their time, but I worry that  misleading advice and predictions can lead to mistaken actions and policies. I prefer humble assumptions and robust (anti-fragile) policies that work with a range of potential behaviors.

  • Jeavons thought the labor theory of value was misleading: Something that costs £10 to make may only be worth £8 (to the marginal consumer) in the market.
  • Jeavons (and other marginalists) resolved the “diamond-water paradox” thus:

    Adam Smith was exercised by the question of why water is so much cheaper than diamonds, despite the fact that it is so much more useful. Smith reckoned that the paradox showed how useless questions of utility were in determining value. Jevons has another answer. He accepts that water is more useful than diamonds. But then the marginal stuff comes back in. The Jevons theory says that the marginal utility of water is far lower than the marginal utility of diamonds. As Ellen Frankel Paul says, “[w]hile water has great utility, it is so abundant that final increments of it, which is all that one is concerned about in the normal market situation, are worth little or nothing to people already in possession of all they need.” An extra diamond, by contrast, offers massive extra utility to someone. But imagine if there was a drought. Then, the marginal utility of water would be very high–people would be willing to trade diamonds for a glass of water, since it would stave off death for a few more hours (p 191).

  • Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917) is another new name to me. This Indian economist called attention to — and calculated — the loss and extraction from colonial India to Britain, from poor to rich. I first appreciated this “drain theory” when I read Era of Darkness two years ago, and it’s still upsetting to me how many Brits claim that Empire helped India when the opposite was true. The damages from those 300+ years of exploitation are still visible; the dysfunction of inherited weak institutions still harms.
  • Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) claimed that capitalism could only grow with colonialism, since the metropole needed others to exploit. While I agree that colonialism is about exploitation, I don’t see how capitalists need it, since they can also thrive with voluntary trade in free markets.
  • The book ends with Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), the subject of my Marshall 2020 project. Marshall departed from Malthus and Ricardo’s pessimism over the Industrial Revolution because he had more data. At the beginning of the 19th century, wages, productivity and quality of life were rising very slowly but real-wage growth was much faster in Marshall’s time, which meant that workers were gaining relative to capital. We must note that these gains were not automatic, but the result of fights in the press, the streets and legislatures.
  • Marshall also developed Smith’s ideas (diversification increases with the size of the market) into theories of innovation-intensive industrial clusters.
  • Most important, Marshall found a middle way between scientistic plodding (paradoxical proofs promoting pessimistic predictions) and grand but groundless claims of inevitability. Marshall was skeptical and pragmatic. His facts were limited, his caveats numerous. I prefer this humble perspective, as did others. Marshall was influential in his time;  contemporary economists should follow his example in humility over “stylized facts.”
  • I became an instant fan of Marshall (even if it took me 15 years to get ’round to reading his work!) while in graduate school:

    I had a growing feeling in the later years of my work at the subject that a good mathematical theorem dealing with economic hypotheses was very unlikely to be good economics: and I went more and more on the rules. (1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than as an engine of inquiry. (2) Keep to them till you have done. (3) Translate into English. (4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life. (5) Burn the mathematics (p219).

    And with those 2,500+ words, I come to this one-handed conclusion: (Political) economists, from undergraduate to PhD, should read this book (and books like it) to understand where we came from, where we made mistakes, and how individuals and personalities affected our thinking. It is only with knowledge and humility that we can offer good advice on the everyday business of life. For others, I am not sure if this will be quite the page-turner as Heilbroner’s classic. FOUR STARS.

Marginal costs in relation to urban values

Book 5, Chapter 11

§1. If demand for the land’s produce is growing, then it will still be worth applying additional labor and capital to the land, despite diminishing returns. Urban areas that can — due to density, specialization, etc. — produce more, of greater value, can bring this demand whereas agricultural or “low density” agglomerations cannot.

§2. The development of agricultural land into urban use is expensive, but it will can raise land values by enough to repay investment. It’s for these reasons that some land owners tax themselves to build improvements, railways, drainage, etc. Success and profits are not guaranteed.

§3. The discounted value of land and its discounted ground rent differ due to time, since rental terms are agreed at the beginning of a period (e.g., 20 years) but values are calculated from the end of a period.

§4. Up or out? Build up if land is dear and out if it’s cheap. That’s why we see skyscrapers in urban areas and sprawling ranch homes in rural areas.

§5. Land use will change as value per unit area increases, going from farming to garden crops to factories to (cheap then expensive) shops and housing.

§6. Shops and traders competing for scarce urban space will either need to sell high volumes at low prices profits or low volumes at high profits.

§7. The value of a location to a renter will rise or fall with its natural and artificial amenities and their price. A factory running on water power will get value from its location as well as its water power, but an increase in the price of either can make the site unattractive, which can lead to problems if different landlords set different prices for land and water power.


This post is part of a series in the Marshall 2020 Project, i.e., an excuse for me to read Alfred Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890 first edition/1920 eighth edition), which dominated economic thinking until Van Neumann and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour (1944) and Samuelson’s Foundations of Economic Analysis (1946) pivoted economics away from institutional induction and towards mathematical deduction.

Interesting stuff

  1. Covid has shut down DJs, clubs & festivals around the world 🙁
  2. A history of Greyhound bus lines…
  3. The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons
  4. The Netherlands is the ideal base for international drugs trade
  5. I had no idea, but the “forest wars” to cut or preserve old growth trees in the Pacific Northwest were being fought when I was a child in the 70s and 80s. What’s crazy/sad is that it was a “great idea” to clearcut thousand-year old trees until then 🙁
  6. Economic growth gives us liberalism and demands for equality whilst stagnation and regress give us political reaction
  7. Kevin & Mike are the co-founders of Instagram. How did they form such a strong partnership?
  8. Facebook is happy to sell ads to those who believe in conspiracy theories, undermining its claim to be fighting misinformation.
  9. The former head of Venezuela’s central bank on how to mess up an economy
  10. The Lockpicking Lawyer is funny as hell