Ken Arrow was, until his passing today, the world’s greatest living economist. There are so many tributes to him all over the web that it would be superfluous for me to write another. Here’s a nice one.
Between his blog, his New York Times columns and his textbooks, Greg Mankiw has probably contributed more than anyone else alive to the cause of economic literacy. But his most recent column is, I think, a rare miss.
The thrust of the column is that the estate tax is a bad idea because it violates the principle of horizontal equity by imposing substantially different tax burdens on substantially similar people:
Consider the story of two couples. Both start family businesses when they are young. They work hard, and their businesses prosper beyond anything they expected. When they reach retirement age, both couples sell their businesses. After paying taxes on the sale, they are each left with a sizable nest egg of, say, $20 million, which they plan to enjoy during their golden years.
Then the stories diverge. One couple, whom I’ll call the Frugals, live modestly. Mr. and Mrs. Frugal don’t scrimp, but they watch their spending. They recognize how lucky they have been, and they want to share their success with their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
The other couple, whom I’ll call the Profligates, have a different view of their wealth. They earned it, and they want to enjoy every penny of it themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Profligate eat at top restaurants, drink rare wines, drive flashy cars and maintain several homes. They spend their time sailing the Caribbean in their opulent yacht and flying their private jet from one luxury resort to the next.
So here’s the question: How should the tax burdens of the two couples compare? Under an income tax, the couples would pay the same, because they earned the same income. Under a consumption tax, Mr. and Mrs. Profligate would pay more because of their lavish living (though the Frugals’ descendants would also pay when they spend their inheritance). But under our current system, which combines an income tax and an estate tax, the Frugal family has the higher tax burden. To me, this does not seem right.
The problem with this argument is that it’s not an argument against the estate tax. It’s an argument against any tax (other than a pure $X-per-person-per-year head tax). Try it:
President Obama, defending the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just said something very like the following (I heard this on the radio and am quoting from memory):
And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where we get to sell things all over the world and never buy anything.
Oh. I assume, then, that he’ll be defending his jobs program in terms something like this:
And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where we get to work all day and never get paid.
For that matter, this also works as a defense of Obamacare:
And another thing: You’ve got to compare this to the realistic alternatives. It’s not fair to compare it to some ideal, unachievable arrangement where get to spend all our time in hospitals and never get well.
Suppose American manufacturers sell 1000 widgets a year to American consumers at a price of $9 each. Now, thanks to a new free trade agreement, foreign manufacturers can sell widgets to American consumers at $6 each. Let’s try to account for all the different ways that Americans are affected.
1. American manufacturers have two choices: They can match the foreign price of $6, or they can go do something else. If they match the foreign price, they lose $3 per widget (compared to what they were making before). If instead they go do something else, they lose at most $3 per widget. We know this, because they always have the option of matching the foreign price and therefore won’t choose any option worse than that. Therefore, the loss to American manufacturers is at most $3000. (In fact, under very mild assumptions, which almost always hold, the loss is surely less than $3000, but we won’t need to know that here.)
2. Existing American consumers — the ones who were going to buy those 1000 widgets anyway — pay $6 per widget instead of $9 per widget, and therefore collectively save $3000.
3. Some Americans who were unwilling to buy widgets at $9 will happily buy them at $6, and will be happy with their purchases. This is an additional gain to Americans.
Bottom line: American producers lose at most $3000. Existing American consumers gain $3000. New American consumers gain something too. Therefore the gains to Americans must exceed the losses to Americans.
I have good news for you: There’s an easy way to make that happen. Take 10% (or 5% or 20%) of your wages, and use them to buy corporate stock.
Are you a corporate employee who *doesn’t* wish that your income were tied more closely to your employer’s profits?
I have good news for you, too. You don’t have to buy additional stock if you don’t want to.
Hilary Clinton, however, wants to change all that. She wants to force you into a profit sharing arrangement that is, for all practical purposes, equivalent to forcibly converting part of your salary into corporate stock. If you were planning to do that anyway, this will make no difference to you. If you weren’t planning to do it anyway — if, for example, you preferred to diversify your risks by investing your wages in some other industry — then, of course, this will make you worse off.
(I trust that none of my regular readers is silly enough to respond that Clinton’s plan is much better than buying stock, because you get the profit-sharing in addition to your existing salary. But for the benefit of the occasional drive-by reader, this is not possible. Market pressures insure that your total compensation is equal to the value of what you produce for the company, and if one facet of that compensation goes up, then another must go down.)
Wasn’t there this idea going around that we could explain business cycles through intertemporal substitution of labor supply? (Without the jargon, this means that people work less in times when they are less productive and more in times when they are more productive, so small shocks to productivity — due to random things like weather — tend to have much bigger effects on output.)
Well, it rained here on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, so my roofers spent most of the day pressed up against the garage door trying to stay dry and waiting for little breaks in the rain so they could get something done. On Saturday and Sunday, the weather was beautiful and they didn’t show up. Now it’s Monday and they’re back to work.
My friend and former colleague (and our occasional commenter), James Kahn, weighs in on Federal Reserve policy in a thoughtful piece over at Fox Business.
Proponents of the Fed’s ZIRP (zero-interest rate policy) will quickly point out that the low inflation numbers in recent years belie any claim that policy has been too loose. In a sense they are right: Policy has not been as loose as interest rates suggest, because the Fed has been pushing forward on one lever (asset purchases) while pulling back on another (paying interest on bank reserves). With the economy’s mediocre fundamentals (those supply factors mentioned above), banks are happy to hold large reserves of cash, thus blunting the impact of the Fed’s enormous balance sheet increase.
Bernanke’s gloating about the lack of inflation is thus somewhat misplaced. The concern about losing control of inflation (in one direction or the other), has always been (or should have been), on the Fed’s ability to manage the transition back to normalcy, i.e. the unwinding of its balance sheet, the raising of interest rates, and the drawing down of bank reserves. The Fed may be able to manage all this, but so far it is just lots of rhetoric – it brags about the ability to do so while postponing actually doing it.
In other words, thoughtful critics have said all along that there’s an inflation risk associated with the (future) transition back to normal monetary policy. Less thoughtful counter-critics have claimed to refute that observation with the counter-observation that right now, inflation doesn’t seem to be a problem. Like the optimist in free fall, they figure we’re doing alright so far.
For an upcoming Festschrift, I was recently asked to write an account of Dee (then Don) McCloskey‘s years as a brilliant teacher at the University of Chicago, her influence on a generation of economists, and my own enormous debts to her. This was a great pleasure to write. A draft is here.
Yesterday’s post touched on several related points, and I’m afraid the most important one got buried near the end, so I want to repeat it:
1) In the presence of an effective minimum wage, all benefits of the earned income tax credit are transferred to employers. This is, as they say, a matter of Economics 101. (Edited to add: As Bennett Haselton points out in comments, I should have said “dissipated”, not “transferred to employers”. The point remains that the benefits don’t go to the workers, which, for this discussion, is what matters.)
2) Paul Krugman argues that we should have an effective minimum wage in order to prevent some of the benefits of the earned income tax credit from being transferred to employers.
In this context, it should be remembered that Krugman ordinarily reserves his deepest scorn for those who, according to Krugman, willfully ignore the lessons of Economics 101.
Let’s review the argument for 1), with reference to the graph below. In the presence of, say, a $5-an-hour minimum wage, employers will hire 1000 workers. Because more than 1000 people want to work, employers can extract extra concessions in the form of reduced on-the-job-training, shorter breaks, and harsher working conditions. They can get away with exactly $1-an-hour’s worth of this, because even at an effective wage of $4, there are still 1000 people willing to work.
Edited to add: I am assuming that these concessions are of relatively little value to employers (otherwise they wouldn’t have waited for the EITC to demand them!), so that the quantity of labor demanded does not change.
Now let’s add a $3-an-hour earned income tax credit, which shifts the labor supply curve to the dashed position. Ordinarily, this would lead to a lower equilibrium wage, transferring some of the benefits of the EITC to employers. But in the presence of the $5 minimum, wages can’t drop, and employment remains fixed at 1000, though now even more people want to work, allowing employers to impose even harsher conditions until the effective wage drops to $1 an hour (the wage at which there are still 1000 people willing to work). This process transfers all the benefits of the EITC away from the workers.
The question is often raised: “Why would you ever want to raise the minimum wage when you could raise the earned income tax credit instead?”. In other words, if you’ve got a choice between two ways to increase the effective wage rate, why would you choose the one that reduces employment over the one that increases employment?
Paul Krugman has an answer. He’s argued on numerous occasions that the EITC and the minimum wage are complements, not substitutes — that is, each makes the other more effective. So, according to Krugman, once you’ve raised the EITC, the case for a minimum wage hike becomes stronger, not weaker.
Here’s his argument: When you raise the EITC, more people enter the labor market. The increased supply of labor tends to drive wages down, which transfers some of the benefit from the workers you intended to help to the employers and/or consumers who you presumably care about less. To prevent this perverse consequence, one needs a hike in the minimum wage.
The other day, a colleague (who I’m not naming because I’m not sure whether he’d want to be quoted) pointed out that this argument makes not a shred of sense. Here’s why: Any effective minimum wage (that is, any minimum wage set above the wage rate that would prevail in an unregulated market) suffices to do the job Krugman wants it to do. At best, then, Krugman has made an argument for having some minimum wage, not a case for raising it.
Here’s the picture:
Paul A.M. Dirac was a pioneer of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. His work pervades all of modern physics. He was, by almost all accounts, one of the top 10 physicists of all time, and by many accounts one of the top 2 physicists of the 20th century. And he’s one of my personal heroes.
When Dirac was awarded the Nobel prize in 1933, he was asked to say a few words at the banquet that kicks off the multi-day Nobel celebration — and chose, against tradition, to speak about a subject other than physics. Here is Paul Dirac on the source of all our economic problems:
I should like to suggest to you that the cause of all the economic troubles is that we have an economic system which tries to maintain an equality of value between two things, which it would be better to recognise from the beginning as of unequal value. These two things are the receipt of a certain single payment (say 100 crowns) and the receipt of a regular income (say 3 crowns a year) through all eternity. The course of events is continually showing that the second of these is more highly valued than the first. The shortage of buyers, which the world is suffering from, is readily understood, not as due to people not wishing to obtain possession of goods, but as people being unwilling to part with something which might earn a regular income in exchange for those goods. May I ask you to trace out for yourselves how all the obscurities become clear, if one assumes from the beginning that a regular income is worth incomparably more, in fact infinitely more, in the mathematical sense, than any single payment? In doing so I think you would then get a better insight into the way in which a physical theory is fitted in with the facts than you could get from studying popular books on physics.
True to form, then, Dirac set an agenda that others scurried to follow — the agenda in this case being the exploitation of the Nobel prize as a license to spout economic gibberish. Almost a century later, his program continues to flourish.
Suppose you’ve got 1000 students to assign to two schools, each with 500 slots available. Everyone prefers the Good School to the Bad School. Which of the following is a fair way to decide who goes where?
Method A: Give each student a coin to flip and count on the Law of Large Numbers to insure that just about exactly 500 will flip heads. Those students go to the Good School.
Method B: Randomly assign each student to one of two groups. Then flip a single coin to determine which group goes to the Good School.
Method C: After taking note of the fact that, coincidentally, exactly half the students are white and half are black, flip a single coin to determine which race goes to the Good School.
Method D: Assign all the white students to the Good School.
(There’s also of course Method D-prime, where you assign all the black students to the Good School, but I don’t think we need to consider this one separately.)
I ask this question because economists have been very involved with the design of school-allocation mechanisms, particularly in Boston, and one of the things they worry about is fairness. So it seems important to stop and think about what fairness means in this context.
I just spent a little while trying and failing to construct a homework problem for my honors class. Although it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, I thought it might serve as a good illustration of how economists (often) think about income redistribution.
The idea is that different people are born with different talents, and that if it were possible for us all to meet in a shadowy pre-birth world (what the philosopher John Rawls called “behind the veil of ignorance”), we’d want to insure against landing in the shallow end of the gene pool — so we’d probably agree that the lucky ones — those with a lot of talent — would help to take care of the rest.
The further idea is that because we’d presumably all have voluntarily signed on to such an agreement, there’s at least a plausible case for enforcing it. (I’ve argued elsewhere that this plausible case does pretty much nothing to justify the actual sorts of redistribution that are practiced by, say, the United States government — but for present purposes, that’s neither here nor there.)
The big problem is to figure out exactly what terms we’d have all agreed on. Jim Mirrlees won a Nobel Prize for a major attack this problem. But I don’t want to ask my college sophomores to digest a Nobel-worthy body of work, so my goal is to construct a sort of baby version of the Mirrlees approach — which I hope might also interest at least one or two blog readers.
Now if governments were omniscient and omnipotent, the problem would be pretty easy — you’d take a whole lot from the rich and give a whole lot to the poor, and you’d forbid talented people to respond by working less.
In practice, though, governments face a lot of constraints. The one I want to focus on is that our talents and/or incomes might be at least partially invisible to the government. You can’t “take from the rich” if you don’t know who the rich are.
One solution is, instead of taking directly from the rich, to tax things that only rich people buy.
So my idea was to imagine that everyone has a natural talent, and an associated natural income, ranging from 0 to 1. You can spend all your income on corn (in whatever quantity you can afford), or you can spend part of your income to buy a car, for a price of 1/2. Obviously, only people with incomes over 1/2 can even consider buying a car, and even some of them might prefer not to.
Larry Summers, writing in the Washington Post, tells us that:
While the recent decline in energy prices is a good thing in that it has, on balance, raised the incomes of Americans, it has also exacerbated the problem of energy overuse. The benefit of imposing carbon taxes is therefore enhanced.
He might have an argument in mind, but he doesn’t seem to have presented it.
The benefit of carbon taxes, as Summers says, comes from “the recognition that those who use carbon-based fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions.” In other words, without a tax, people use more oil than they should. I’m with him so far. Now what Summers appears to be thinking is that when the price of oil falls, people use more oil, which increases the gap between what they do use and what they should use. What this overlooks is that when the price of oil falls, there are increases in both the amount people do use and the amount people should use — and hence no particular reason to believe that the gap has grown.
Having made such an argument, one should draw a picture to make sure it’s right. Here are the demand and supply curves for oil. Points on the demand curve show the value to consumers of individual gallons of oil; points on the supply curve show the cost to producers of supplying those individual gallons; points on the social marginal cost curve show the cost to society (including pollution costs) of supplying those individual gallons:
Ideally, oil would be supplied only up to the point where demand crosses social marginal cost and no further. Unfortunately, it’s supplied up to the point where demand crosses supply. Those excess gallons create social losses measured by the skinny rectangles in the left-hand panel (the social loss from a gallon of oil is equal to the social cost of providing that gallon, minus its value to a consumer). These add up to the area labeled X on the right. The value of an appropriate-sized carbon tax is that we’d avoid that social loss. That is, the benefit of a carbon tax is measured by area X.
Now suppose oil becomes available more cheaply. This shifts both the supply curve and the social marginal cost curve vertically downward by the same amount and shifts area X to a new location. As you can see in the picture, there’s no particular reason to think that the area’s gotten any bigger:
In yesterday’s post about Eric Garner, I wrote:
Suppose you are a typical street vendor of an illegal product, such as, oh, say, untaxed cigarettes.
Suppose the police make a habit of harassing such vendors, by confiscating their products, smacking them around, hauling them off to jail, and perhaps occasionally killing a few.
I have good news: The police can’t hurt you.
Here’s why: Street vending can never be substantially more rewarding than, say, carwashing. If it were, car washers would become street vendors, driving down profits until the rewards are equalized. If car washers were happier than street vendors, we’d see the same process in reverse. (The key observation here is that it’s very easy to move back and forth between street vending and other occupations that require little in the way of special training or special skills.)
Because police harassment of street vendors has no effect on the happiness of car washers, and because street vendors are always just as happy as car washers, it follows that police harassment has no effect on the happiness of street vendors.
So if you’re a street vendor, the police can’t hurt you. On the other hand, when the police go around putting people in deadly chokeholds, they’re clearly hurting someone. So the question is: Who?
Answer: Not the vendors, but their customers. Fewer vendors means higher prices. That hurts consumers, and the sum total of that harm adds up to the harm that we see in the viral videos.
Several commenters jumped in to question the claims that:
I’d like to thank those commenters — particularly David Sloan, Keshav Srinivasan and Eric — for keeping me honest and for persisting when I was initially too quick to dismiss their questions.
With regard to the first point, what I actually should have said was:
That’s because harassment causes street vendors to move into a great many other occupations, one of which is car washing. For every displaced street vendor we get, say, 1/2000 of an extra car washer — bringing wages ever so slightly down in the car washing industry and therefore making both car washers and street vendors ever so slightly worse off.
I do not consider this a significant correction.
With regard to the second point, it would have been more accurate to say this:
More precisely, if we consider the harassment equivalent to a tax of T, then the burden on producers tends to grow linearly in T while the burden on consumers in the harassed industry tends to grow quadratically in T.
However, here are two points I now realize I’d overlooked:
Here’s an explicit model:
If you asked me to make the best possible argument in favor of the police action that led to the death of Eric Garner, it would go like this:
If you asked me to make the best possible counterargument, it would go like this:
That is, every protection racket needs an enforcer. When shopowners don’t pay up, the enforcer has only two options: Walk away or resort to violence. To walk away would sacrifice credibility. Therefore we cannot fault the enforcer for resorting to violence. Sometimes violence gets pretty messy. So it goes.
The force of that reductio ad absurdum depends on the analogy between taxation of cigarettes and the demand for protection money. I think that reasonable people can disagree about the depth of that analogy.
But the lesson remains that every law must occasionally be enforced through potentially catastrophic violence, or, to put this more succinctly, all legislation is deadly. Violence is part of the cost of making laws, and it’s a cost the makers of new laws would be well advised to contemplate.
Suppose a newly elected Republican president wants to exempt all investment income from taxation. There are two ways to do this:
1) Retain the income tax, but exempt all interest, dividends, and capital gains (while also abolishing the corporate and estate taxes).
2) Scrap the income tax and replace it with a national consumption tax.
The president’s chief economic advisor, like all economists, is well aware that these two policies are essentially equivalent in the sense that, once prices, wages and interest rates adjust to the new policies, each individual taxpayer is burdened exactly as much by policy 2) as by policy 1). More precisely, at least following an initial adjustment period each individual taxpayer enjoys exactly the same lifetime stream of consumption under policy 2) as under policy 1).
Let’s suppose also that the chief economic advisor believes that policy 1) is vulnerable to scurrilous class-warfare-themed attacks and therefore cannot be sold to the American people. Policy 2), however, stands a chance of passage. He therefore goes around honestly touting what he perceives to be the clear virtues of policy 2), choosing not to mention that it’s equivalent to policy 1).
Here’s one difference between me and Paul Krugman: He enthusiastically supports President Obama’s new immigration policy, which he calls a matter of human decency. I grudgingly support President Obama’s new immigration policy, which I call a bit less indecent than the policy it replaces.
Here’s another difference between me and Paul Krugman: I believe it’s the job of an economics journalist to call attention to unpleasant tradeoffs and offer frameworks for resolving those tradeoffs. Krugman apparently believes it’s the job of an economics journalist to sweep all tradeoffs under the rug in the name of advancing your policy agenda — appealing, if you will, to the stupidity of the American op-ed reader.
Krugman, for example, tells us that he opposes deportations because they’re cruel, but also opposes open borders because they’d make it both economically and politically impossible to maintain the modern American welfare state.
In furtherance of which, he offers this kind of claptrap:
Second, there are large numbers of children who were born here … but whose parents came illegally, and are legally subject to being deported.
What should we do about these people and their families? There are some forces in our political life who want us to … deport the undocumented parents of American children and force those children either to go into exile or to fend for themselves.
But that isn’t going to happen, partly because, as a nation, we aren’t really that cruel
Dammit, I hate this stuff. Krugman says (and I agree with him) that it’s cruel to deport people. He ignores the fact that it’s also cruel to keep other people out. Krugman says (and I agree with him) that letting more people in would put pressure on the welfare system. He ignores the fact that allowing people to stay also puts pressure on the welfare system. Why should we prioritize kindness to those who are already here over kindness to those who are clamoring to get here?
There might be a really good answer to that question, but you’d never know it from reading Krugman. In fact, the takeaway from Krugman’s column is that the cruelty of deportations is unacceptable only because Krugman says so, and the cruelty of closed borders is a necessary evil only because Krugman says that too. So the next time you want to know whether some other policy is unacceptably cruel or not, the only way to find out is to ask Paul Krugman.
And then there’s more:
Regarding Jonathan Gruber and the Cadillac tax, I think a little historical context will be useful:
1) Our tax system subsidizes employer-provided health insurance. That’s dumb. Pretty much all economists agree that it’s dumb.
2) On the other hand, it’s politically hard to eliminate a subsidy once people get used to it.
3) In 2008, we had an election. The candidates were named Barack Obama and John McCain. Exactly one of those candidates took the politically courageous step of proposing to eliminate the subsidies (and replace them with other subsidies, far more sensibly designed). The other candidate took the low road, leaping to the defense of subsidies he had to know were indefensible, playing to the crowd, and staking all on what could reasonably be called “the stupidity of the American voter” (though I myself would prefer to call it “the inattentiveness of the American voter”). That candidate won in a landslide.
4) Once elected, President Obama’s demagogy came back to haunt him. On the one hand, he knew that you cannot have sensible health care reform without curtailing those subsidies. On the other hand, he’d publicly committed himself to preserving them.
In early 20th century China, goods were frequently transported by barges pulled by teams of six men. The men were paid only if they delivered their goods on time. Therefore they all agreed to pull as hard as possible.
This is a classic example of what economists call a Prisoner’s Dilemma — a situation where everyone wants to cheat, regardless of whether he believes the others are cheating. Any bargeman might reason that “If the others are pulling hard, we’re going to make it anyway, so I might as well relax. And if the others are not pulling hard, we’re not going to make it anyway — so I still might as well relax .” Therefore they all relax and nobody gets paid.
According to my late and much lamented colleague Walter Oi, the bargemen frequently solved this problem by hiring a seventh man to whip them whenever they appeared to be giving less than 100%. You might suppose, at least if you’re a person of ordinary tastes, that hiring a man to whip you is never a good idea. There’s a sense in which you’d be right. But hiring a man to whip your colleagues can be a very good idea indeed, and if that requires getting whipped yourself, it might prove to be an excellent bargain.
If I’d lived in China a hundred years ago, I believe I’d have gone out of my way to buy goods from the teams with whipmasters — partly because that’s where I’d expect the best service, but also partly because I’d feel a certain combination of admiration and loyalty for the teams who were working so hard to earn my business.
That’s how I feel about the folks at Amazon. Based on the fabulous service I’ve been getting, I’m confident these people are knocking themselves out to do a good job for me. In fact, it’s been widely (and perhaps accurately) reported that during a heat spell a couple of summers ago, workers in an un-airconditioned Pennsylvania warehouse continued to fill orders even as several were being treated for heat sickness.
There’s a narrative going around that tries to paint these workers as victims, though I’ve heard no version of that narrative that makes clear who, exactly, is supposed to have victimized them — the stockholders? the management? the customers? the do-nothing Congress? But there’s little point in trying to make sense of this narrative, since it’s so obviously wrong to begin with.
Imagine a team of ambitious but relatively low-skilled workers. They know that if they all push themselves to the limit, they’ll all be more productive and therefore earn higher wages. They also know that if they all promise to push themselves to the limit, they’ll all break their promises, figuring that success or failure depends almost entirely on what the others do.
Four years ago, roughly two dozen economists and financial theorists signed an open letter to Ben Bernanke urging him to back off the policy of quantitative easing, citing, among other things, the risk of inflation.
Bernanke was apparently unmoved, and quantitative easing went ahead as scheduled. Inflation has not materialized. This raises a number of questions for the signers of the letter. Should they be ashamed? Do they have anything to apologize for? Should they renounce everything they thought they knew about economics and relearn the subject from scratch?
Cliff Asness, one of the signers, responds here. This is a terrific essay, not just on the specific topic of quantitative easing but on the general topic of the lessons we should and should not learn from our mistakes and/or from concerns that don’t materialize.
Postscript: True to form, Paul Krugman concludes that Asness, because he disagrees with Krugman, must be entirely ignorant of all the macroeconomic literature on liquidity traps. I wonder if Krugman wants to draw the same conclusion about Asness’s fellow signer John Taylor, whose likely future Nobel prize, unlike Krugman’s (who won for trade theory and economic geography), will recognize Taylor’s widely acknowledged first-rate scholarship and influence in the field of macroeconomics.
As recently as a few months ago, doctors were held in high esteem and educated people believed that medicine could be useful. All that changed, of course, with the medical profession’s stunning failure to prevent or even predict the breakout of ebola in West Africa. Worse yet, many doctors to this very day cling to their old ways of thinking, writing prescriptions, setting broken bones, and performing surgery in bull-headed defiance of the urgent need to jettison everything we know about medical practice and start over from scratch.
Nobody, of course, writes such nonsense about medicine. Why, then, do so many write equivalent nonsense about economics?
Most economists failed to predict the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession for pretty much the same reason most doctors failed to predict the 2014 ebola epidemic — their attention was, quite reasonably, directed elsewhere. It’s easy to say in hindsight that if economists had paid more attention to the shadow banking system, they’d have seen what was coming. But attention is finite, and if economists had paid more attention to the shadow banking system, they’d have paid less attention to something else.
For a little perspective, have a look at this chart showing U.S.~per capita income in fixed (2005) dollars:
That little downward blip you see near the top is the recent crisis. The somewhat bigger downward blip in the 1930s is the Great Depression. The moral is that in the overall scheme of things, recessions don’t matter very much. At the trough of the Great Depression, people lived at a level of material comfort that would have seemed unimaginably luxurious to their grandparents. Today, while Paul Krugman continues to lament “the mess we’re in”, Americans at every income level live far better than Americans of, say, 1980. If you doubt that, you surely don’t remember what life was like in 1980. Here’s how to fix that: Pick a movie from 1980 — pretty much any movie will do — and count the “insurmountable” problems that the protagonist could have solved in an instant with the technology of 2014. Or reread any of the old posts on this page.
Imagine a world where everyone is equally risk-averse, and where there are two assets available: You can hold stock in an umbrella company, or you can hold stock in a sunscreen company. Depending on the (quite unpredictable) weather, one of these stocks is sure to gain value at 100% a year while the other is sure to lose value at 95% a year, but it’s impossible to know which is which.
Given this, the smart thing to do is to hold a balanced portfolio of the two assets and earn a comfortable 5% per year. Most people in this imaginary world are smart enough to figure this out. But a small number are stupid enough to put all their eggs in one or the other basket. Half these people are quickly wiped out; the other half become super-rich.
Now we have a society in which nobody smart is especially rich, and everyone rich is especially dumb.
Question: Does this parable contribute anything useful to understanding some aspect (obviously not all aspects!) of the wealth distribution in the world we inhabit? Discuss.
This is the story of how I came to write a little paper called The Coinflipper’s Dilemma.
When I was in high school, my English teacher must have had a free period at the time when my math class met, because every day he would march into the math class and empty his pockets on the table, whereupon my math teacher did the same. Then whoever had put down the most money scooped up everything on the table.
I am ashamed to admit that it took me until this summer to think about computing the equilibrium strategy is in that game.
Former economist Paul Krugman has actually managed to get these words past an editor at the New York Times:
There is, however, one big difference between corporate persons and the likes of you and me: On current trends, we’re heading toward a world in which only the human people pay taxes.
Now I think we can be quite sure that even Paul Krugman, with his gargantuan capacity for forgetting everything he once knew, is well aware that we already live in a world where only human people pay taxes. That’s an instance of the general principle that the legal incidence of a tax does not determine its economic incidence. The corporate income tax is levied by law on corporations, but its economic effects are felt entirely by humans.
Why then, did he write this in the first place? Well, the charitable reading — and I am all in favor of charitable readings — is that all he’s saying is that the legal incidence of taxation has shifted somewhat from corporations to individuals.
But why would that be interesting? And why would it be, as Krugman seems to take for granted, a clearly bad thing? Suppose that in 1990, I received a $1 dividend and paid a 25% tax, keeping 75 cents in my pocket, while in 2014, due to a fall in corporate rates (leading to higher dividend payouts) and a rise in personal rates, I received a $1.50 dividend and paid a 50% tax, keeping 75 cents in my pocket. Who cares?
Well, perhaps there are reasons to care, involving some non-obvious incentive effect of the sort that it takes an economist to notice. Well, that, then, is where the economist comes in — his job being to explain why he thinks these things matter. In this case, I don’t offhand see the argument, but I’m perfectly happy to believe there might be one. On the other hand, if Krugman actually has an argument in mind, one wonders why he’s so reluctant to share it.
Oh, he does pay lip service to the need for an argument, but all he offers is sophistry:
Yesterday’s brief post raised an eyebrow over a congressional candidate who manages simultaneously to call himself a “free-market economist” and to support strict controls on immigration. Here are a few more words for those who don’t quite see the problem.
First, I can imagine two possible meanings for the adjective “free-market”. Either it means you place a high value on freedom as an end in itself or it means you believe that freedom is, in general, a highly effective means to other ends you care about, like prosperity or security. I happen to be a free marketeer in both senses, though I can easily imagine being a free marketeer in either sense alone.
I see my preference for freedom as an end in itself as being similar to my preference for well done meat — you either share that preference or you don’t, and if you don’t, we’ll just have to agree to disagree — there’s no right or wrong here. One exception: If your preferences strike me as inconsistent — if, that is, you seem to make a lot of choices that indicate a strong preference for freedom while denying that freedom is terribly important to you — then I’m apt to point to that inconsistency and suggest that you might want to think a little harder about what your true preferences really are. That was the thrust of what I once tried to do in a book called Fair Play, where I suggested that the choices we make as parents often reveal values contrary to those we express in the voting booth — and that by reflecting on those choices, we might become more thoughtful voters.
On the other hand, if you doubt that freedom is an effective means toward prosperity, then I’m pretty sure you’re just wrong, and that if you thought about it harder you’d change your mind. A lot of my other writing has tried to explain how to think about it harder, and to demonstrate that this is a subject where hard thinking can be fun.
Now I’m not sure in which sense our congressional candidate considers himself a free marketeer, but surely if you’re a free marketeer in either sense, you’ll tend to endorse statements like these:
I do, however, trust Per Krusell and Tony Smith to have given it a fair reading, because Krusell and Smith have long track records as diligent and thoughtful scholars. And their analysis appears to devastate both Piketty’s model and his prediction that income inequality is destined to grow explosively over time.
All of Piketty’s predictions depend on his assumptions about how much people save. The simplest respectable model (that is, a model that economists generally feel comfortable using for many purposes, and which fits fairly well with observations) says that we save a fixed percentage of our incomes — say 30%. (There are also more sophisticated models in which this percentage can change as economic conditions change.)
Piketty, by contrast, assumes that our net saving is a fixed percentage of our net incomes, where “net” means “after subtracting depreciation of our assets”. That’s a very different assumption, and, according to Krusell and Smith, not at all a plausible one. It’s implausible first because it has extremely odd implications. Most notably, it implies (though this is not immediately obvious) that if economic growth slows to zero, we will eventually choose to save 100% of our incomes(!!). Beyond that, Krusell and Smith argue in considerable detail that, compared to the more traditional models, Piketty’s does a poor job of fitting the last seventy years’ worth of data.
According to Krusell and Smith, Piketty demonstrates correctly that under his assumptions, slowing economic growth must lead to massive inequality over time. But under the far more plausible assumptions found in modern textbooks and modern research papers, that conclusion goes away. In fact, after substituting those assumptions, Piketty’s arguments yield something like the opposite conclusion — as growth slows down, changes in inequality become pretty much negligible.
If this analysis is right — and given the identities of the authors I’ll be very surprised if it’s wrong — then there appears to be very little reason to buy into Piketty’s story. That doesn’t mean he’s wasted his time. We learn a lot by making a variety of different assumptions and figuring out where they lead us, even when the assumptions are ultimately unsupportable. But a serious intellectual exercise is not the same thing as a serious prediction.
Here’s a key lesson of economics: Trade is good, but trade with people very unlike yourself is even better. I’m a teacher who eats beef, drives a car and lives in a house. I don’t need other teachers so much as I need students, ranchers, autoworkers and architects. If your neighbors love gardening as much as you hate it, you’ll find it easy to hire a gardener. If it’s the other way around, you’ll do well in the gardening business.
The lesson spills over beyond the markets for goods and services. We learn new ways of thinking and new ways of living from people who think and live differently than ourselves.
We thrive on diversity — diversity of skills, diversity of interests, diversity of lifestyles, diversity of religious and political outlooks, diversity of culinary and artistic tastes, diversity of lifestyles, and, lest we forget, diversity of income. Capitalists need workers and workers need capitalists. A wealthy factory owner won’t stay wealthy for long if here’s nobody to work the assembly lines. A middle-class assembly line worker won’t be middle-class for long if there’s nobody building factories.
Let us then celebrate diversity, not try to extinguish it. And let’s not forget that diversity of income — or, if you prefer, “income inequality” — is just as much a blessing as diversity of skills, preferences, cultural outlooks, and ways of living.
Josh Barro observes that home ownership is a really bad investment strategy insofar as it involves putting an awful lot of eggs in one basket — indeed, for many people it involves putting more eggs than they’ve got in one basket, since the mortgage market allows you to sink more than your entire net worth into a single house.
In fact, it’s even worse than Josh says. If your house is located anywhere near your workplace (in other words, if you’re almost anyone) then a local economic downturn can devastate your home value at exactly the same time that it’s costing you your job. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary risk.
As Josh acknowledges, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t own a house; it just means you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a wise investment.
But Dan McLaughlin at the Federalist isn’t satisfied:
Economists … should never make the mistake of ignoring consumer behavior they regard as irrational…What Barro should have asked himself (as any real economist should) before declaring that vast numbers of homebuyers and homeowners have been acting irrationally for millenia in buying their own homes is: what are they getting out of it that my analysis is missing?
I enthusiastically endorse the sentiment that when we observe “inexplicable” behavior, our first instinct should be to ask “What am I missing?”. But Barro at least tried to do that — he pointed to “a sense of security” and the desire to customize one’s residence. I agree with McLaughlin’s assessment that these are pretty weak answers, but unfortunately McLaughlin’s own “answers” are even weaker. According to McLaughlin, we own houses because we don’t like to move, and he elaborates at length on the reasons why —- moving is expensive, it means adjusting to new neighborhoods, uprooting your family, etc. etc.
The thing is, though, none of this is a reason to own rather than rent. You could accomplish all of the above with a 99-year lease (binding for the landlord but not for the tenant) which would give you all the residential stability of home ownership while transferring the risk to a professional landlord with diversified holdings.
So why do people buy houses? Offhand, I can think of three answers: