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"Economic Warfare"

Mises Daily: Thursday, September 22, 2011 by

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Pundits are accustomed to utilizing the language of war and strife to depict economic relationships. This is confusing, irrational and misleading. For the dismal science addresses mutual benefit, or positive-sum games. All participants gain whenever a trade, a purchase, sale, rental agreement, job, etc., gets consummated; necessarily so in the ex ante sense, and in the overwhelming majority of cases ex post.

For example, if I purchase a newspaper for $1, it is an apodictic undeniable truth that at that moment, I ranked the periodical more highly than the money I had to pay for it. Why else, for goodness sakes, would I have been willing to engage in this commercial transaction was this not so? I anticipated that I would benefit from this trade. Even in the ex post sense, from the vantage points of afterward, in virtually all such cases I and everyone else in this position gains. Rare is the case where I, or anyone else for that matter, regrets the purchase of a paper on the ground that there was no good news in it after all, and that was what the buyer was seeking and expecting.

Consider in this regard, then, concepts such as "price war," or "hostile takeover." Here, it would appear, there is not mutual benefit occurring in the market, but rather an antagonistic relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Take the latter first. This charge is fueled by the spectre of corporate raiders who swoop down on a helpless firm, engage in a "hostile takeover," sell off its assets, and fire all the employees. There are numerous fallacies here. First of all, unemployment is created by artificially boosting wages above workers' productivity. If the minimum wage law, or a union, insists that an employee be paid $10 per hour, but he is only worth $7 in terms of productivity, he will be unemployed, period. This has nothing to do with so-called hostile takeovers. Yes, people are fired, but unemployment is no higher in industries that witness such activities than in any other.

But do not corporate raiders sometimes dismember firms for their assets? Indeed, they do. However, they only earn a profit when these selfsame assets are actually worth more in other areas of endeavor than where they were first deployed. This means that if jobs are lost in one corporation, they will be created in others, to the places where the assets are now more productively employed, thus raising wages.

Another socially beneficial effect of the corporate raider concerns salaries of chief executive officers. Many commentators complain that CEO salaries have hit the stratosphere, and constitute an unconscionable exploitation of the workingman. Suppose that the capital value of a firm would have been $100 million if the CEO salary was "moderate," but, because of a stupendous compensation package, it is now worth only $10 million. Such a firm would be ripe for the pickings of a corporate raider. He would purchase this business for, say, $11 million, fire the parasitical CEO, watch the firm's value rise to its "proper" $100 million, and pocket a hefty $89 million in profit. The corporate raider is to outrageous CEO salaries what the canary is to coal mine safety; only he does the bird one better: not only does he warn of a problem, he solves it in one fell swoop. Yet, government, in jailing people like Michael Milken, has obliterated this beneficial market mechanism. And now they have the audacity to complain of out-of-control CEO pay.

As for "hostility" there is no such thing between the buyer and seller of stock. The only "hostile" person is the CEO who was ripping off the firm. But when we say that in the market there is only peaceful cooperation, we mean on the part of those who engage in any specific transaction; e.g., the newspaper buyer and seller. Third parties, of course, can always be hostile. A Marxist, for example, might have his nose put out of joint by all commerce. He is "hostile" to all of them. So what?

What of price war? This, too, is a linguistic contortion. When grocers, or filling stations, for example, lower their prices in an attempt to attract customers, they are very far from having a "war" with those who buy from them. Very much the opposite is the case. As far as the relation of these vendors with each other, the supposed participants in this "war," they are in the same position as the too-high-salaried CEO and the corporate "raider." They are third parties to all these transactions, and, as such, have no standing in any of them. They cannot reveal or demonstrate (Rothbard 1997) their hostility. That is, when customer A purchases groceries or gasoline from seller a, seller b might not like it, but he is not part of this transaction.