Archive for the 'Policy' Category

Information, Please

Why do we need a national health policy, any more than we need a national grocery policy or a national automobile policy or a national matchmaking policy?

Over on another recent thread, one of our commenters keeps pointing to allegedly unique “information issues” in the market for health care. So let’s see how unique those issues really are.

First, there are issues like adverse selection. The very fact that you’re buying insurance makes sellers suspect you’re sick, and they charge accordingly. Therefore if you’re not sick you overpay, and because you overpay you’re likely to underinsure.

That issue is not unique to health insurance. It also plagues the markets for car insurance and homeowner’s insurance, along with plenty of other markets. The very fact that you’re selling a used air conditioner makes buyers suspect there’s something wrong with it, and they lowball their offers accordingly. Therefore, you can’t get a good price even for a perfectly good air conditioner, and because you can’t get a good price you’re less likely to list it for sale in the first place. That’s exactly the same adverse selection problem (with buyers and sellers reversed), but there’s no general clamor for a national used-air-conditioner policy.

That’s not to say that adverse selection is unimportant, or that we shouldn’t try to address it, and it’s not deny that it might loom larger in some markets than others. But it’s far from unique to the market for health insurance.

Another information issue — one being flogged endlessly by a persistent commenter in that other thread — is that providers generally know a lot more than their customers do about the merits of various medical procedures. This is presented as if it were a reason for providers (e.g. doctors, insurance companies, or federal program administrators) to make key decisions, as opposed to presenting the customer with a price list from which to choose — the same method that seems to work perfectly well in restaurants, auto repair shops and lawyers’ offices.

But all of this overlooks the biggest information issue of all which is this: Only the customer knows whether he’d prefer, say, three weeks of pain relief to, say, a new car stereo, or whether he’d prefer, say, a slight lifelong reduction in heart attack risk to, say, an extra five restaurant meals every year.

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The Dire Prognosis

Here is what I wrote on this blog the day after the election:

The big loss is that there will be no unified right-of-center voice in American politics. Toomey, Portman and the rest of them will do what they can, but it’s Trump who will be taken to define Republicanism, which is to say that Republicanism will henceforth be pretty much the same thing as Democratism.

It gives me no pleasure to observe that with the new Trump-endorsed Republican health care plan, I stand vindicated.

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Missed Opportunities

I haven’t seen any of the details, but it looks like the Republican health care plan suffers from many of the same defects as Obamacare, and is in some ways worse.

Mainly: As far as I am currently aware, the plan pretty much leaves in place the main ongoing problem with health care, which is that most people are grossly overinsured, so that health care choices are too frequently made by insurance companies instead of by (cost-aware) consumers and providers. The solution, in broad terms, is to replace insurance with individual health savings accounts (which, if you’re worried about this sort of thing, can be just as heavily subsidized as insurance is). Plenty of Republicans know this, and have been saying it for a long time. But — at least according to what’s in the early news reports — they seem to have come up with a bill that ignores it.

In fact, the Republican bill makes things worse in at least one way, by lifting the Cadillac tax on employer-provided health care plans, thereby encouraging even more overinsurance.

Presumably this was the compromise among feuding factions that the Republican caucus was able to hammer out. Presumably, too, a little leadership from the one person with veto power could have yielded a much better outcome. Too bad the one person with veto power is a self-obsessed loonybird. I do believe a President Bush or a President Cruz — or even, perhaps, a President Clinton — would have insisted on something far far better.

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Doing Right by Veterans

There are approximately 22 million veterans of the United States Armed Forces. They are served — not always well — by the Veterans Administration, with a budget of about $182 billion a year. That’s almost $8300 per veteran per year.

Which raises the question: Why, exactly, do we have a Veterans Administration? My guess (and admittedly it’s only a guess) is that an overwhelming majority of those veterans would much prefer to lose the VA and get a check for $8300 every year instead.

Of course some veterans get end up claiming a lot more than $8300 a year in VA services due, for example, to combat-related trauma that manifests itself only years after leaving the service. But with $8300 a year, you can buy a lot of insurance against such contingencies (and with 22 million veterans each having $8300 a year to spend, there are sure to be a lot of new insurance products available).

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The Dilbert View

scottadamsThroughout this election season, Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) has been right when I (and a whole lot of others) have been wrong. On his blog, Adams kept patiently explaining why Donald Trump would be a strong contender, while I and a great many others believed (or maybe just hoped and therefore believed we believed?) that Trump was a flash in the pan. Each of the many times that Trump seemed to take himself out of contention, Adams predicted he’d survive and even thrive — and each time, Adams was right.

Now, however, Adams has turned his attention from Trump’s merits as a candidate (where Adams seems to have had a great deal of insight) to Trump’s merits as a potential president. And here, despite all his past successes, I am quite sure that Adams has outrun his expertise. Policy analysis and political analysis are, after all, two very different things.

From Adams’s most recent blog post:

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Homer Nods

mankiwBetween 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:

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The All-Purpose Defense

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.

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Trading in Fallacies

Under quite general conditions, free trade pacts lead to higher average real incomes in every participating country. The argument for this proposition is simple, incontrovertible, and entirely non-controversial among those who have taken a few minutes to understand it. This stands in contrast to the arguments for, say, Darwinian evolution or anthropogenic climate change, which rely on vast bodies of evidence that most of us will never digest. Your opinions on evolution and climate change almost surely rely at least in part on the testimony of experts. Free trade is different. It doesn’t matter what the experts say, because you can check each step in the argument for yourself.

Educated people know this. So when they want to throw up roadblocks in the way of free trade, they don’t say silly and obviously false things like “free trade will make us poorer”. Instead, they say silly things like “Sure, free trade will make us better off on average. But there are still both losers and winners!” From this, they want us to conclude either that free trade is not a good thing, or that at the very least, the winners should compensate the losers.

This strikes me as an extraordinarily dishonest way of arguing, because pretty much nobody ever argues this way about anything else, even though every policy change in history has created both winners and losers. In fact, every human action has both winners and losers. When Archie takes Betty instead of Veronica to the ice cream shoppe instead of the movies, both Veronica and the theater owner lose out. It does not follow that all human actions are wrong, or immoral, or should be discouraged by law, and it does not follow that all human actions should be followed by compensation to the losers. What, then, is so special about free trade?

The problem is confounded by the fact that with free trade, unlike many other policies, the winners are often poorer than the losers. When Americans lose their $30 an hour jobs making air conditioners so that they can be made by $20-an-hour foreigners, the big losers are Americans whose wages fall from $30 to $20. The big winners are Americans who can now for the first time afford air conditioning. Most of those people are probably making less than $20 an hour. (On this point, see also here.)

For those who insist on repeating the old “What about the losers?” refrain, I’ve prepeared a little quiz to test your moral consistency:

  1. In 1998, a new grocery store opened in my neighborhood, offering better food at lower prices than the old grocery store. This is generally perceived to have been a good thing overall, but at same time it was bad for the owners of the existing grocery store.
    1. Does this mean that the new grocery store should have been prohibited from opening?
    2. Does this mean that the winners — i.e. my neighbors and I — should have compensated the losers — i.e. the proprietors of the old grocery store — for their losses?
  2. In 2005, I stopped going to the barber and started cutting my own hair. My friends think my hair looks better now, and there’s a general perception that the change has been a good thing overall.
    1. Does this mean that I should be required to return to my barber?
    2. Does this mean that the winners — i.e. my friends and I — should have compensated the loser — i.e. my ex-barber — for her losses?
  3. In 2008, Google introduced the Android operating system to compete with Apple’s iPhone monopoly. This is generally perceived to have been a good thing overall, but at the same time it was bad for Apple’s shareholders.
    1. Does this mean that Google should have been prohibited from developing the Android system?
    2. Does this mean that the winners — i.e. everyone who purchased an Android, and everyone who got his iPhone a little cheaper thanks to the competition — should have compensated Apple’s shareholders for their losses?
  4. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in the United States of America. This is generally perceived to have been a good thing overall, but at the same time it was bad for slaveholders.
    1. Does this mean that Lincoln should not have freed the slaves?
    2. Does this mean that the winners — i.e. the freed slaves — should have compensated the losers — i.e. the slaveholders — for their losses?
  5. In 2008, Bernard Madoff was arrested and his ongoing Ponzi scheme was cut short. This is generally perceived to have been a good thing overall, but at the same time it was bad for Bernie Madoff.
    1. Does this mean that Madoff should not have been arrested?
    2. Does this mean that the winners — i.e. the Madoff victims — should have compensated the losers — i.e. Madoff and his co-conspirators — for their losses?

Scoring: If your answers were mostly “no”, and if you are nevertheless skeptical of free trade pacts, you’ve got some explaining to do.

Continue reading ‘Trading in Fallacies’


trumpFollowing the latest round of drivel from Donald Trump, this might be a good time to review the standard textbook case for free trade. (You’ll also find this spelled out in The Big Questions .)

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.

Continue reading ‘Trumponomics’


A quick question for my friends who vote Democratic and support much stricter gun control:

If, one year from today, Donald Trump is the head of the government, will you really want that government to have a monopoly on automatic weapons?

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Hillary Clinton Campigns In Iowa, Meeting With Small Business OwnersAre you a corporate employee who wishes that your income were tied more closely to your employer’s profits?

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.)

Continue reading ‘Clintonomics’

How to Be Reasonable

Listening to Season One of NPR’s podcast Serial, which is the story of a real-life murder case, I came away about 80% sure that the defendant was guilty and 100% sure that I’d vote to convict him. This got me to pondering whether my standards for reasonable doubt (apparently less than 80% in this case) are in fact reasonable.

So I wrote down the simplest model I could think of — a model too simple to give useful numerical cutoffs, but still a starting point — and I learned something surprising. Namely (at least in this very simple model), the harsher the prospective punishment, the laxer you should be about reasonable doubt. Or to say this another way: When the penalty is a year in jail, you should vote to convict only when the evidence is very strong. When the penalty is 50 years, you should vote to convict even when it’s pretty weak.

(The standard here for what you “should” do is this: When you lower your standards, you increase the chance that Mr. or Ms. Average will be convicted of a crime, and lower the chance that the same Mr. or Ms. Average will become a crime victim. The right standard is the one that balances those risks in the way that Mr. or Ms. Average finds the least distasteful.)

Here (I think) is what’s going on: A weak penalty has very little deterrent effect — so little that it’s not worth convicting an innocent person over. But a strong penalty can have such a large deterrent effect that it’s worth tolerating a lot of false convictions to get a few true ones.

In case I’ve made any mistakes (and it wouldn’t be the first time), you can check this for yourself. (Trigger warning: This might get slightly geeky.) I assumed each crime has a fixed cost C to the victim and a random benefit B to the perpetrator. For concreteness, we can take C=2 and take Log(B) to be a standard normal distribution, though the results are pretty robust to these particulars. (Or, much more simply and probably more sensibly, take B to be uniformly distributed from 0 to C — the qualitative results are unchanged by this.)

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Advice for Ted Cruz

I’m typing this a few hours before the Iowa Republican Debate. By the time you read it, you might know whether Ted Cruz chose to ignore this advice.

Cruz’s opposition to ethanol subsidies is apparently a problem for him in Iowa. It shouldn’t have to be. The whole point of opposing inefficient subsidies is that if we eliminate enough of them, we can all be better off.

So what Cruz ought to do is introduce a bill eliminating a long list of subsidies, ethanol among them — together with Planned Parenthood, NPR, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to find another hundred or so — and then emphasize to Iowans that the net effect of the entire package, which takes away their ethanol subidies but also relieves their tax burden, will be to make them richer. A collateral benefit is that he can then argue that the same bill makes New Hampshirites, Nevadans and South Carolinians richer, and if he succeeds in getting the nomination, that it makes Americans generally richer.

As a general rule, I do not understand why politicians take politically risky stands without this kind of bundling. It seems like good politics, and I’m sure it’s good policy.

Ethanol and NPR are of course small potatoes. One could of course do the same sort of bundling with big issues, and politicians of course sometimes do this. But why don’t they do it with both the small stuff and the big stuff?

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What’s Fair is Fair

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.

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News Flash

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that the president of the United States can do any damn thing he wants to, regardless of the law. Where were these guys when Nixon needed them?

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What Is Larry Summers Thinking?

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:

Continue reading ‘What Is Larry Summers Thinking?’

Trey Gowdy Thinks You’re Stupid

Here we have six and a half minutes of Representative Trey Gowdy badgering Jonathan Gruber while studiously avoiding any form of substance.

There’s a lot Gowdy could have asked, like “So, is it actually the case that a tax on insurers is equivalent to a tax on the insured?” or “Can you explain why those taxes are equivalent?” or “Are there any important ways in which the two policies are not equivalent?” or “Why do you think a tax on `Cadillac plans` was good policy in the first place?”

Instead, all he can think of to ask — over and over and over and over and over and over and over again — is, “Why did you call the American people stupid?”, as if there were anything useful to be learned from the answer.

I see one possible explanation here. Apparently Gowdy believes his constituents prefer mindless bullying to policy enlightenment. In other words, he acts on the assumption that the American voters are fundamentally stupid. Maybe someone should spend six and a half minutes asking him why.

Edited to add: I said this in a comment, but want to add it to the post. It either is or is not important to determine the truth of the matter regarding the issues on which Gruber spoke deceptively — e.g. in what sense are these two taxes equivalent, etc. If these questions are not important, why are we having this hearing in the first place? If these questions are important, then why is Gowdy so uninterested in them?

Edited to add further: I said this also in a comment, but want to add it here. Gruber is lying. Gowdy has a chance to question him. Gowdy can use that chance either to chant the equivalent of “Liar, liar, pants on fire” or to pin him down on the substance of what he’s lying about, e.g. “Do you or do you not stand by the statement that a tax on insurers is equivalent to a tax on the insured?”. I assure you that Gruber prefers the former, and that’s what Gowdy is giving him. Presumably that’s because he thinks voters are too stupid to appreciate the latter.

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Three Short Essays on Eric Garner


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:

  1. Cigarettes are taxed.
  2. You can’t have taxes without enforcement. In this case, the enforcers are the police.
  3. Where there are enforcers, there will be confrontations.
  4. When sellers refuse to cooperate, the enforcers have only two options: Walk away, or resort to violence.
  5. Enforcers who walk away soon lose their credibility and their effectiveness. This is more than doubly important for a police officer, who needs that credibility when he confronts far more dangerous criminals.
  6. Therefore, we cannot fault the police for resorting to violence.
  7. Violence is sometimes catastrophic. That’s sad, but it’s not news.

If you asked me to make the best possible counterargument, it would go like this:

  1. You could say exactly the same thing about a protection racket.

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.

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Two Questions for Bob Murphy

Bob Murphy objects to my recent defense of Jonathan Gruber. I have two questions for Bob.

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).

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Day of Thanks

This is a slightly revised version of my Thanksgiving post from five years ago. I think it bears repeating:

After the philosopher Daniel Dennett was rushed to the hospital for lifesaving surgery to replace a damaged aorta, he had an epiphany:

I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

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The Goldwater Standard

goldwaterFifty years ago this Labor Day weekend, the presidential campaign of 1964 got underway in earnest. It is often said that Barry Goldwater “lost the election but won the Republican party” or even “lost the election but won the future” by nudging the center of either the party or the country several notches to the right.

I don’t see it. Where is the contemporary mainstream politician — Republican or otherwise — who would repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or at least those provisions (Titles II and VII) that authorize Federal regulators to override private business decisions about whom to serve and whom to hire? Where is the contemporary mainstream politician who would sell the Tennessee Valley Authority? Or end all agricultural supports? If Goldwaterism is in fact ascendant, then how did entitlement spending, as a percentage of GDP, manage to grow for most of the past 20 years — even though Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for 16 of those 20? For that matter, how is it that after all those years of Republican control, the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities — two of the more noxious weeds to arise from the soil of the Goldwater defeat — continue to thrive?

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Tipping the Scales

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:

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Veterans Affairs

Suppose you’ve just joined the army and expect to serve for, oh, say, four years before returning to civilian life.

Which would you rather have when you get out: a lifetime-guaranteed annual check for $7500 (adjusted each year for inflation) or a package of VA benefits?

To help you decide: The VA benefits include payments of anywhere from about $100 a month to almost $3000 a month in the unlikely event that you are partially or fully disabled, a pension on the order of $15,000 a year in the more unlikely event that you are both disabled and poverty-stricken (rising to more like $20,000 a year if you need regular aid and attendance), educational benefits under the GI bill, and health care of whatever quality the government chooses to provide.

Me, I’d take the guaranteed $7500-a-year in a heartbeat. If that’s the typical response, then it’s hard to see why we have a Veteran’s Administration in the first place, seeing as how the VA’s annual budget would just about cover those payments.

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The Rising Tide

So the Obama administration has released a climate forecast, according to which Miami could be under water by the end of the century. Apparently we’re supposed to be very concerned about that.

To put this in perspective, we’ve currently got about 140,000,000 square miles of ocean on this planet — about 71.066% of the earth’s surface. Add Miami’s 35 square miles and that goes up to 71.066007%. You could add all of South Florida and barely notice the difference.

Here’s what Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone says about that:

Of course, South Florida is not the only place that will be devastated by sea-level rise. London, Boston, New York and Shanghai are all vulnerable, as are low-lying underdeveloped nations like Bangladesh. But South Florida is uniquely screwed, in part because about 75 percent of the 5.5 million people in South Florida live along the coast.

What Mr. Goodell appears to overlook is that of the 5.5 million people now living in South Florida, approximately zero will be alive a hundred years from now, and those that are will presumably have had the sense to move inland well before the water reaches their breastbones.

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Homer Nods

Well, nobody’s perfect.

When it comes to skewering bad reasoning — and making the right arguments crystal clear — Don Boudreaux is usually about as close to perfect as anyone gets. But this time I believe he’s committed a gaffe of his own.

In a column on the minimum wage, Don writes:

Suppose that I invent and use a machine to steal $15,000 every year from each of 500,000 poor Americans, with the $7.5 billion being transferred into my Swiss bank account. After skimming off a few hundred million bucks to cover processing and handling expenses, I share the bulk of these proceeds with about 16.5 million friends…Am I acting immorally? Most people would answer “yes”…

By way of context, a CBO study forecasts that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour will cause 500,000 workers to lose their $15,000-a-year jobs, while raising the pay of 16.5 million others.

But Don’s analogy fails, because taking someone’s $15,000-a-year job is not the same thing as taking someone’s $15,000. I think it’s a fair guess that most minimum wage workers dislike their jobs. So losing one of those jobs has an upside, which has to be weighed against the downside of not getting paid. On balance, losing that $15,000-a-year job might be no more painful than losing, say, $5000 a year.

The right version of Don’s analogy, then, goes more like this:

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Re Arizona

I realize I’m late to the party, but here are a few thoughts on Arizona Senate Bill 1062:

1) A law allowing people to pick and choose whom they want to transact with would be a very good law. Not as good as eliminating the other laws that make this law necessary, but still a big improvement over the status quo.

2) Senate bill 1062, however, was not that law. Instead it was a law allowing people to pick and choose who they want to transact with provided they have (or claim to have) a religious basis for their preference.

3) This raises the question of how we should feel about good laws that exempt only the politically favored from onerous requirements of other laws. How should we feel, for example, about a law that allows only white people, or only black people, or only Muslims, or only art history majors to practice cosmetology without a license — while continuing the status quo for everyone else?

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What Went Wrong

Okay. I’ve never worked as a tech geek, so I’m speculating from ignorance here. Some of you can probably speak with more authority. Perhaps we’ll hear from the reliably acerbic and insightful Doctor Memory, who knows whereof he speaks on this subject (and several others). But to my uneducated eye, it appears that Arnold Kling has got this pretty much dead-on right: The Obamacare mess “is not a technical screw-up, and it will not be fixed by technical people. It is an organizational screw-up.”

What you had here, among other things (and almost of this is paraphrasing Kling) is:

  • A bunch of people who had never worked in the insurance business appointing themselves executive officers of the world’s largest insurance brokerage.
  • Nobody at the top with the authority to trim features as needed to keep the project manageable.
  • No mechanism for the technical staff to challenge the managers, because all of the management decisions were essentially set in stone before the technical staff — i.e. the outside contractors — came on board.
  • No clear lines of authority and acceptability.

Private enterprises frequently fail, often for one or more of these reasons. But sometimes they succeed, and that’s largely because sometimes they get this stuff right. The government, by contrast, has no mechanism for getting it right. The people at the top are not industry experts, the features are largely determined by the legislative process, which takes place with absolutely no feedback from the tech geeks who are going to have to implement it, the political system pretty much forces you to put the technical part of the project out for bid and to parcel it out among multiple contractors, eliminating any possibility of ongoing negotiation between the managers and the techies, and on top of all that, nobody’s livelihood is on the line.

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Six Observations

Do correct me if I’ve got any of the history wrong here:

1. It seems pretty likely that a big part of the reason why Amazon’s website works so well and Obamacare’s website works so poorly is that Obamacare, unlike Amazon, is not subject to the discipline of the market (and therefore, for example, employs coders with no equity in the enterprise).

2. A whole lot of people predicted that the Obamacare bureaucracy would not work well because it would not be subject to the discipline of the market. I’m not sure anyone pointed to the webpage as a particular point of vulnerability, but plenty of people made the general observation that large government bureaucracies don’t work well and that this was a reason to be skeptical of Obamacare.

3. Paul Krugman pooh-poohed those concerns.

4. Paul Krugman reminds us approximately 914 times per month that only a very bad person would fail to acknowledge accurate predictions of his adversaries. (It’s true that in approximately 914 of those 914 cases, the vindicated adversary is Paul Krugman. But he has indicated support for the general principle.)

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A Novel Example

Yesterday’s post on the problem with novels was initially badly garbled due to an html coding error. It’s fixed now, but since the original version managed to confuse some people, let me offer an example (which you can also find in the comments on the original post).

Light in August, which has already been written, is available for about $8. It’s worth $9 to me. If I download a copy, $9 worth of social gain is created (a $1 gain for me, and an $8 gain for the estate of William Faulkner).

Now a contemporary novelist, say Sara Gruen (to pick a very good one) comes along and realizes that with $8.50 worth of effort, she can write a book for which I’m willing to pay $10. By offering it at $8.99, she induces me to read her book instead of Faulkner’s, and clears a 49 cent profit. Total gain: $1.01 for me, and $.49 for Sara, or $1.50.

(Of course Sara Gruen does not write books just for me, but she might well expend $8500 worth of effort to write a book for 1000 people like me, whereupon all the numbers scale up.)

In other words, by writing a very good novel, Ms. Gruen reduces the social gain from my reading habits from $8 down to $1.50.

That’s exactly the sort of thing that economists generally believe should be taxed. In fact, a perfectly analogous argument constitutes the entire case for taxing polluters.

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When a Good Novel Is A Bad Thing

Edited to add: The original version of this post was marked up wrong, causing it to jump from the middle of the first paragraph to the middle of the fourth. That presumably made it seem pretty incoherent. It’s fixed now. If it made no sense to you before, I hope you’ll give it another shot.


If you read a novel a month, then Anthony Trollope, Philip Roth and William Faulkner (my three current favorites) should be enough to get you through the next 8 years. At that point you can start in on Dostoevsky or (if your memory is like mine) go back to the beginning and it will all seem new again.

There are in the world, far too many superb novels to read in a single lifetime, which makes it pretty hard to justify writing new ones. Even the best of contemporary novelists might well be more usefully employed as, say, an exterminator.

Yet successful novelists receive great rewards that encourage them to continue writing. That’s what we call a market failure — a case where price signals have failed in their mission to direct resources (in this case the novelist’s time and effort) to their most valuable uses.

You can, for example, get the Kindle edition of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for about $8.50. For the same $8.50, you can get the Kindle edition of, say, Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants. Either way, you’ll read a terrific book. But if you fork over $8.50 for Gruen’s book, she and her publisher get the message that they’ve given you at least $8.50 worth of value, and they should keep it up. That’s an illusion, because it ignores all the value that was lost when you bypassed the Faulkner.

Continue reading ‘When a Good Novel Is A Bad Thing’