The Man Who Made Your Selfies Possible

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

In 2015, a new world record will likely be set: humans will record fleeting moments of their lives at least one trillion times over the course of the year. That’s how many photos we’ll snap, up from 810 billion in 2014, according to InfoTrends’ Worldwide Image Capture Forecast. About three-quarters of them will be taken with smartphones, which didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago.

Giants in the field of photography have enriched our lives far beyond the imaginations of the first few generations of Americans. While the first photographic process — called daguerreotype — was introduced commercially in 1839, decades of innovation and investment followed before picture taking was inexpensive enough to make it a national pastime. More than anyone else, the man behind that investment was George Eastman.

It was 115 years ago, in February 1900, when Eastman introduced the Kodak “Brownie” box camera. The price tag was one dollar; film sold for 15 cents a roll. Eastman was about to do for cameras what Steve Jobs would do for computers almost eight decades later: put exciting new technology within the reach of almost every American family.

The camera and camera phone are tributes to the spontaneous order of a relatively free, entrepreneurial marketplace, unplanned by politicians or bureaucrats. 

Whether you’re a camera buff or not, you probably have seen and perhaps have even used a Brownie. Nowadays, they show up at rummage sales and antique shows, but I can remember when they were still widely used in my childhood days during the 1950s. They were simple t…

There’s No Escaping Competition

“The motives of fear and greed are what the market brings to prominence,” argues G.A. Cohen in Why Not Socialism? “One’s opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one’s success.”

Cohen further notes that these are “horrible ways of seeing other people” that are the “result of centuries of capitalist civilization.”

If only we had a different economic system where people viewed each other as brothers and sisters in a common effort rather than competitors trying to grab the largest share of the economic pie.

The competition we see in the marketplace has the important advantage of creating benefits for the rest of society and not just the competitors.

Implicitly drawing on Marx’s idea that the forces and relations of production determine the ideas people have and the way they behave, this criticism imagines that competition is a contingent feature of human interaction caused by capitalism.

But is it? Are we only competitive because capitalism makes us so?

By contrast, consider a line in my class notes for the day we start talking about competition in my Introduction to Economics course: “Competition is not a product of living in a capitalist society — it’s a product of not living in heaven.”

Despite the dreams of the socialists, competition is not going away any time soon. As long as resources are scarce and not all of our wants can be fulfilled, humans require some way of determining who will get which goods.

Competing Versions of Competition

Suppose for a moment that we want to figure out how best to allocate goods to consumers. In a market economy, we allow people to engage in competitive bidding to try to acquire the things they think are most valuable to them. But we can…

How to Steal $75,000 from the Poor in One Day’s Work

The new liberality concerning marijuana possession in the United States is long overdue, but let’s not exaggerate how much progress we’ve made. Users might not be ending up in jail as frequently as they did 10 years ago. But cops, judges, and courts still exercise arbitrary power to ruin people’s lives, and they continue to do so at astonishing rates, all over the country.

I recently saw this firsthand. I sat in a municipal traffic court from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., awaiting my own time with the judge for a petty moving violation. I was there with 150 other people, gathering cobwebs as the judge took his sweet time and shamed people as they stood at the bench and humbly submitted to his rule.

No phones or computers are allowed in court. My iPad was not allowed, either. Once you enter through the metal detector, you are trapped for the duration. There is no contacting anyone. For most people today, this would be the only time in their lives when such contact is forbidden. This rule contributes to the feeling of being controlled by and subjected to power.

You just have to wait your turn, even if it takes eight hours. So there we sat.

Not one person in this courtroom had harmed anyone. Not one. They had not stolen anything, had not mugged anyone, had not caused any car wrecks. And yet there they were, facing torment at the hands of a judge drunk on power and a criminal-justice system that is out of control.

Most of my fellow criminals were poor, young, black men who had been stopped for some traffic violation and then booked for a different, unrelated offense. Why the lopsided demographics? Were these people targeted? It would be hard to prove, but it seems highly likely.

The supposed crimes called out by the judge were all over the map: there was too much tinting on the windows, the license plate light was burned out, the vehicle was following too closely, the driver was speeding (of course), the car had expired tags, th…

Embrace the Zombie Apocalypse

Look past the tatters and putrefaction. Scan the bent and broken bodies shuffling toward you. Do you recognize a coworker, a neighbor, maybe even a loved one?

It’s the zombie apocalypse — and it’s an idea that ever more academics are taking seriously.

They don’t expect the undead to swarm our cities, but they do notice that zombie invasion scenarios have spread through 21st-century popular culture like a pandemic, from tongue-in-cheek literary send-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to big-screen summer blockbusters like World War Z, to the record-breaking TV show Fear the Walking Dead (with the highest-rated first season of any series in cable history).

Medium or Message?

Some scholars, like the University of Virginia’s Paul Cantor, seek to decrypt our newfound fascination with the undead, to discern the hopes and fears of popular culture. For others, the zombie craze offers a way to communicate their own prior concerns to an audience already drawn to visions of the shambling hoards.

Scholars Amy and Antonio Thompson have recently finished work on a serious academic text called …But If a Zombie Apocalypse Did Occur: Essays on Medical, Military, Governmental, Ethical, Economic and Other Implications. The book is part of publisher McFarland’s larger series called Contrib…

Stephen Hawking Doesn’t Understand Economics

Stephen Hawking, the University of Cambridge physicist and bestselling science writer, says that technology is driving an “ever-increasing inequality.” He is a brilliant polymath, but he doesn’t understand economics.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything forum, Hawking wrote:

If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

His error here is in too quickly accepting the assumption of technological unemployment, which asks us to imagine a world where a large percentage of the populace is unemployable because they have zero marginal productivity thanks to machines. In other words, in no conceivable circumstance will an employer pay them anything for their labor. They cannot get jobs and pay their bills. Those without savings will starve and die.

New technology changes productivity, but it does not upend the logic of exchange and production. 

Given this apocalyptic assumption of crippling and permanent unemployment, it is unsurprising that Hawking comes to a bleak conclusion — one that seems to demand government as a solution. But the idea of technological unemployment suspends the laws of economics: specifically, scarcity and comparative advantage.

Scarcity occurs when our desires exceed our means of achieving them. We cannot perfectly multitask: to do one thing implies not doing something else. This is an inescapable quality of the world. No matter our level of technological development, scarcity will still e…

He Volunteered to Go to Auschwitz

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

In this great mortuary of the half-living — where nearby someone was wheezing his final breath; someone else was dying; another was struggling out of bed only to fall over onto the floor; another was throwing off his blankets, or talking in a fever to his dear mother and shouting or cursing someone out; [while still others were] refusing to eat, or demanding water, in a fever and trying to jump out of the window, arguing with the doctor or asking for something — I lay thinking that I still had the strength to understand everything that was going on and take it calmly in my stride.

That was on a relatively good day at the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942, in the words of the only known person to have ever volunteered to be a prisoner there. His name was Witold Pilecki. His story is one of history’s most amazing accounts of boundless courage amid bottomless inhumanity.

Powerful emotions gripped me when I first learned of Pilecki and gazed at his picture. I felt rage toward the despicable regimes that put this honorable man through an unspeakable hell. I welled up with admiration for how he dealt with it all. Here you have a story that depicts both the worst and the best in men.

To label Pilecki a “hero” seems hopelessly inadequate.

Olonets is a small town northeast of St. Petersburg, Russia, 700 miles from present-day Poland. It’s where Witold Pilecki was born in 1901, but his family was not there by choice. Four decades earlier, when many Poles lived under Russian occupation, the czarist government in Moscow forcibly resettled the Pileckis in Olonets for their part in an uprising.

For the first time since 1795, Poland was reconstituted as an in…

There’s No Such Thing as Excessive Profits

If you want to do business in Venezuela, you will have to let the government do your bookkeeping to make sure you aren’t making too much. Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s decree, called the “Organic Law of Fair Prices,” sets a maximum “fair” profit at 30 percent of costs.

Besides the practical problems of implementing such a measure, the ceiling rests on a basic misconception: the idea that there is such a thing as “fair” or “excessive” profits misunderstands the function of profit — and loss — in a market economy.

To bemoan a capitalist earning high profits is like complaining about a surgeon saving too many lives.

The Profit-and-Loss Test

The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises cherished the market process because he thought it was a wonderful institution for using the world’s scarce resources in the way that best serves consumers. The market prices of various resources, from labor hours to tons of iron to acres of farmland, show entrepreneurs how valuable those resources are in the most valuable activity — as judged by the spending decisions of consumers — and thus provide the right incentives to deploy them rationally.

As I detail in my new book on Misesian thought, Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action, we can understand Mises’s perspective by imagining a silly scenario where a building contractor decides to coat apartment interiors with solid gold. Surely tenants would be willing to pay a lot more in rent if their apartment had gold-coated countertops. So why would this be a foolish move for our entrepreneur?

The answer, of course, is that even though revenues might be much higher, the use of gold would drive the monetary costs of the project higher still. The decision to start using large amounts of gold would transfo…

Depression-Era Laws Threaten the Sharing Economy

Imagine you’re driving for Uber or Lyft. As an independent contractor, you enjoy setting your own work hours, picking up people you like chatting with (well, for the most part), learning about new parts of town, and earning back some of the investment in your car. Then, one day, an email from your ride-sharing service informs you that some bureaucrats you’ve never heard of have decided that Uber is now your employer. You have to work a certain number of hours and within prescribed times, and the company will start withholding a portion of your pay for taxes, like a typical paycheck. More changes are probably coming. What do you do?

That’s the dilemma ridesharing drivers may soon be facing if the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division follows through on its stated intention to radically redefine what constitutes an employment contract. Ridesharing companies and other sharing-economy startups have operated somewhat freely thanks to the DOL’s relatively laissez-faire attitude toward contracting and other innovative work arrangements. All of that may soon change.

The Wage and Hour Division is, for all intents and purposes, the nation’s wage regulator. In a blog post last July, its head, David Weil, issued new guidance regarding what makes someone an employee rather than an independent contractor. The guidance relies on the expansive wording of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which President Franklin Roosevelt regarded as one of the most important parts of his New Deal.

That act defines employment as simply including “to suffer or permit to work,” giving the Department of Labor huge discretion in defining the term for practical purposes. The New Deal Congress, in choosing this language, specifically re…

The Nightmare of Living in the Past

Swedish doctor Hans Rosling loads a washing machine with laundry on stage at the beginning of his TED talk. When his talk is over, he returns to the washer and pulls out … books.

His presentation, “The Magic Washing Machine,” is about how this one example of consumer technology is far more than a convenience. By mechanizing the arduous process of doing the household laundry, the washing machine gave women back all of the many hours they spent washing, agitating, and wringing out clothes by hand.

With a machine to do the wash, Rosling’s mother had time to read to him and to learn English. That’s what the books he pulled out represented: the age-old opportunity cost of doing laundry the old-fashioned way.

Telling Stories

Over the last few years, I’ve written a lot about how much better life is today than at any time in the past. It’s pretty easy to make that case with a variety of economic data, but data never seem to pack the punch that I wish they could. What’s more effective are presentations like Rosling’s. He provides an incredibly powerful visual image to demonstrate what economic development has done for women both historically and across the globe.

But it’s just one exampl…

Big Pharma and the Opposite of Science

Can we all agree that no reasonable and compassionate person would want to force people to choose between food and medicine?

Unfortunately, too many people across the ideological spectrum assume that by opposing or favoring certain measures — greater regulation of the pharmaceutical industry, for example — you forfeit your reason and compassion.

Politics Is the Opposite of Science

The question of effective means to achieve a particular end is often a question of science — physics or economics, for example — rather than of politics. Determining whether it’s technically feasible or economically worthwhile to explore Mars is a matter of science; trying to gather sufficient popular backing to do so is a matter of politics.

Strictly speaking, pure science is about the search for the genuine causes of observable phenomena; politics is about gaining the authority to pursue favored outcomes. The method of science entails tolerance of and relentless but reasoned criticism of all views, including one’s own; the tools of politics include what urbanist Jane Jacobs calls “deception for the sake of the task.” Real science is about critically examining premises; pure politics is about defeating your opponent.

In politics, you focus on that part of what is seen that supports your position, while in science, you try to get at the part of reality that is often not seen.

There’s no denying that there’s some science in practical politics and some — perhaps a lot — of politicking in the practice of science. But when it comes to the pursuit of truth versus winning or principle versus expediency, politics is the opposite of science.

What Is Seen about Daraprim

A rich entrepreneur named Mar…