Archive for the 'Policy' Category

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

I.

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.

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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.

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The Sky Won’t Fall if the Ceiling Holds

Paul Krugman proffers a trademark sneer to the “default deniers” who are “asserting that the government can prioritize, so as to avoid a default on interest payments”. Not so, says Krugman, who insists that

The crucial point here is that even if they’re right about interest payments — which is unclear — the government will (a) still go into default on obligations to vendors, Social Security recipients, and so on (b) be forced into spending cuts so large as to guarantee a recession if the standoff lasts any length of time.

Well, first of all, as I wrote the last time the debt ceiling got raised, it’s easy to cover all of the interest on the national debt via spending cuts. At least to a rough approximation, you could do it by eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Labor, none of which should ever have existed in the first place.

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Sun Burned

This is a picture of Jeffrey Punton, from my hometown of Rochester, New York, standing in front of the solar panels that he installed at a cost of about $42,500. He figures that over the long term, they’ll save him maybe $8000 to $10,000 in power bills. But he’ll only lose a few thousand dollars on the deal, thanks to about $30,000 in government subsidies — in other words, thanks to those of you who pay taxes. He keeps the panels up as a conversation-starter so he can educate people about how little sense these subsidies make.

The story is here.

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Destruction Paper

It’s well understood that if you see the world through sufficiently Keynesian eyes, you might welcome a destructive hurricane or the threat of an alien invasion (together with the frantic spending it would stimulate) as just the ticket to lift the economy out of a recession.

What seems to have been largely overlooked is that even in a thoroughly non-Keynesian world where markets work perfectly (or as perfectly as they can in the presence of a distortionary income tax), and recessions cure themselves, we might still want that hurricane.

Or, because we can’t always call forth hurricanes when we need them, we might want our government to simulate their effects by diverting funds from useful to destructive spending projects — or just occasionally showing up at people’s houses and trashing their furniture.

Here’s why: Hurricanes make us collectively poorer. When we’re poorer, we work more. When we work more, the government collects additional income tax revenue. But — taking total government spending as given — the government can’t continue to collect additional revenue forever; sooner or later it must lower tax rates. (This assumes we’re on the good side of the Laffer curve, where the way to collect less revenue is to lower rates, not raise them.) When tax rates fall, labor markets work more efficiently. So much so, in fact, that the efficiency gains can more than compensate for the initial destruction.

I only realized this recently, and it surprised me (along with several others I showed it to) enough that I wrote it up as a short paper. (Update: A more recent version of the paper is here.) I also looked back through my blog archives to see how badly I’d gotten this wrong in the past.

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Judgment Calls

If you need further proof that a human being is a close cousin to a chimpanzee, you need look no farther than the design of the American justice system.

Debra Nelson, the judge in the George Zimmerman murder case, has disallowed testimony from audio experts about whether that’s Zimmerman or the deceased Trayvon Martin who can be heard screaming on the 911 tape. That matters, because much of what’s in dispute here is the question of who attacked whom.

One prosecution expert was prepared to testify that the screams are Martin’s, and another that they are at least not Zimmerman’s. Defense experts were prepared to dispute those claims. They made their arguments in front of the judge for several days, whereupon she ruled that the jury won’t be allowed to hear any of it.

The judge’s concern was that there is no good evidence that the experts’ techniques are reliable. That might be true. But who should be making that call — the judge or the jury?

There is, I think, an excellent case to be made that juries are, by and large, incompetent (or at least less competent than judges) to determine what constitutes a plausible argument by an audio expert. But if you buy that argument, I think you’ll be pretty much forced to conclude that the jury is also incompetent to reach a verdict. If that’s your view, we shouldn’t have juries in the first place.

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Hate Crimes in Black and White

Which should the law treat more severely: Killing a guy because he cut you off in traffic or killing a guy because you don’t like his race?

Elsewhere on the web (link omitted because the source is the invitation-only blog of a personal friend), I read the following:

In the former case, you’re a danger to the person who wronged you. In the latter, you’re a danger to tens of millions of people, and that’s just in the US.

Hate crimes are different because the perp’s target list is vastly larger, with the built-in implication of recidivism.

There’s so much wrong with this I’m not sure where to begin. First of all, when a guy kills another guy for cutting him off in traffic, I’m inclined to think the likelihood of recidivism is pretty high. It’s not like nobody’s ever going to piss him off again. Second of all, I’d think that severity of punishment should be tied primarily to its effectiveness as a deterrent to others, not as a deterrent to recidivism. We can deal with recidivism partly by keeping an eye on past offenders, but when it comes to deterring unknown others, punishment is all we’ve got.

But I mention those issues only in passing on my way to what I think is the really interesting question, namely: Which is more harmful? Targeting a specific individual for death or targeting a randomly chosen representative of some race?

And while we’re at it: Which is more harmful? Targeting someone for being black, or for being white?

Some thoughts:

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Cato Unbound: The Political Economy of Recycling

Here’s why recycling poses a policy dilemma: To keep people from dumping their trash on their neighbor’s lawns (or, when they burn it, in their neighbor’s lungs), we have to keep the price of landfill space artificially low. But once you’ve made landfill space cheap, you weaken the incentive to recycle, so arguably we get too little recycling. One solution is to pump up that incentive by casting recycling as a moral imperative. Unfortunately, once people believe recycling is a moral obligation, we’re liable to get too much of it.

This month’s issue of Cato Unbound is titled “The Political Economy of Recycling”, with a lead essay by Michael Munger of Duke University expanding on these and related points, with responses by Edward Humes, Melissa Walsh Innes and myself.

Over the course of the next month or so, we’ll be posting responses and re-responses to each others’ essays, as the mood strikes us. The best of your comments here might well find their way into some of my posted responses there.

Below the fold, a brief teaser from my essay:

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To Hold You Over….

Sorry to have been so silent this week; various deadlines have kept me away from this corner of the Internet. I’ll be back in force next week for sure. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some good reading, this is the best thing I’ve seen all morning.

Edited to add: “Best all morning” was not intended as damning-by-faint-praise. It’s actually the best of many mornings.

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Terror, Truth and Torture


Last week was not the first time the United States was transfixed by an act of terror. In 1964, three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi were (quoting Wikipedia) “threatened, intimidated, beaten, shot, and buried by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department.” It took 44 days and an FBI-initiated act of torture to locate their bodies.

The FBI, in a nod to the theory of comparative advantage, subcontracted the torture to the Mafia, more specifically to the Colombo family associate Gregory Scarpa. Here’s the story as relayed by Selwyn Raab, the New York Times investigative reporter who covered the Mafia for 25 years:

[Scarpa] went down to Mississippi for the FBI and kidnapped a KKK guy agents were sure was involved in disposing of the bodies. The guy had an appliance store. Scarpa bought a TV and came back to the store to pick it up just as he was closing. The guy helps him carry the TV to his car parked in the back of the store. Scarpa knocks him out with a bop to the head, takes him off to the woods, beats him up, sticks a gun down his throat and says “I’m going to blow your head off”. The KKK guy realized he was Mafia and wasn’t kidding and told him where to look for the bodies.

(Source: Raab’s book Five Families, which is fascinating throughout. Raab says the story has been verified by “former law enforcement officials who asked for anonymity and lawyers who are aware of the circumstances”.)

The moral of the story is that torture sometimes works. Other times it doesn’t, eliciting either no information, or false information, or whatever “information” the victim believes the inquisitor wants to hear. I am almost 100% ignorant, and hence virtually 100% agnostic, about the relative frequency of these outcomes in those cases where the torturer is both skilled in his art and genuinely interested in eliciting the truth. I will be very glad if any educated reader can shed light on this question. I doubt that we’re likely to learn of any controlled experiments, but I’ll settle for sketchy data or even well-chosen anecdotes. Failing that, I’ll settle for plausibility arguments.

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‘Bam’nesty

According to the New York Post, “President Obama’s temporary-amnesty program has paid off for 454,000 young immigrants who were brought here illegally.”

That’s all well and good, and I don’t begrudge a single one of those young immigrants his or her good fortune. But let’s be clear here: The biggest losers from our country’s heartless immigration policies are not the young people who have managed to find their way here only to risk deportation. The biggest losers are those who never got here in the first place.

If it were my job to remedy the evils of American immigration policy, I’d start by making it easier to get here, not easier to stay here. Or to put this another way: If the President is willing to allow 454,000 young immigrants (and no more) to be here, I’d prefer he deport everyone who’s already here and bring in another 454,000 to replace them. That way, a million people get at least some opportunity to reap the (relative) benefits of American education and American freedom, as opposed to a lucky half-million reaping all the benefits while another half-million get nothing.

It would be better, of course, to welcome everyone.

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Friedman on Psychic Harm

Four terrific posts by David Friedman, partly on psychic harm, partly on talking about psychic harm. I’d recommend these highly even if they hadn’t invoked my name.

Landsburg v Bork: What Counts As Injury?

Response to Bork and Landsburg

Frightening Ideas

Why Landsburg’s Puzzle is Interesting

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Legal Problems

Economists often say that the law should be written to promote efficient outcomes. That’s more ambiguous than it sounds.

Suppose I want to take an action that causes you harm; for example, I want to cut down a tree that you like looking at. How do we tell if that action is efficient?

Definition 1. The action is efficient if my willingness to pay exceeds your willingness to accept. For example, if I’m willing to pay $100 for the privilege of harvesting the tree, and if you’d accept less than $100 to part with it, then the tree-cutting is efficient.

Definition 2. The tree-cutting is efficient if it would occur in a world with no transactions costs (i.e. a world in which there are no impediments to bargaining).

In many circumstances, these definitions are equivalent, and economists often pretend they’re equivalent always — but sometimes they’re not.

Example 1. I want to punch you in the nose non-consensually. (The non-consensuality is a big part of my enjoyment.) I’d pay $100 to punch you in the nose, and you’d accept $50 to take the punch. By Definition 1, the punch is efficient. But the punch would be unlikely to occur in a world with no transactions costs, because it would require bargaining, hence consensuality on your part, which kills my interest. So by Definition 2, the punch is inefficient.

Example 2. I am willing to pay $100 to cut down a tree; you are willing to accept no less than $150 to part with it. By Definition 1, the cutting is inefficient. But part of the reason I’m willing to pay only $100 is that I’m credit constrained. In a world with no transactions costs, I’d borrow more, and would be willing to pay $200 to cut down the tree. So by Definition 2, the cutting is efficient.

Example 3. I am willing to pay $1000 to cut down a tree; you are willing to accept $500 to part with it. By Definition 1, the cutting is efficient. But the only reason I’m willing to pay so much is that I make an excellent living in my job as a mediator who helps people overcome transactions costs. In a world with no transactions costs, I’d be much poorer and would be willing to pay only $200 to cut the tree. So by Definition 2, the cutting is inefficient.

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Soda Jerk

The one lesson I most want my students to learn is this: You can’t just say anything. It’s important to care about making sense. So I find it particularly galling when people violate this rule while presenting themselves to the public as economists. It undercuts the single most important lesson we have to teach.

THe latest culprit is the unchastened serial offender Robert Frank, writing in the Business section of the Sunday New York Times. His argument has two parts, one philosophical and one economic. In both cases he substitutes blather for analysis. I’m less concerned about the philosophical part, because it’s such obvious nonsense that I can’t imagine anyone will take it seriously. But the fact that he got the economics wrong, and more importantly, his implied message that it doesn’t matter whether you get the economics wrong, seems calculated to undermine the public’s faith in economists. That’s the part I take personally.

Frank’s subject this time is New York Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to curb the sale of large sugary drinks. While acknowledging that such a ban would curb individual freedom in some dimensions, Frank argues that it would simultaneously enhance individual freedom in others — namely, it would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your child from drinking lots of soda.

Now, I do not doubt that for some parents, a ban on large sugary drinks would make it easier to prevent children from drinking lots of soda, but to call this an enhancement of freedom, you (or Robert Frank) would have to use the word “freedom” in a very unorthodox way. By Frank’s definition, a ban on Democratic campaign ads would enhance your “freedom” to prevent your children from voting for Democrats. Would Frank endorse such terminology? Or suggest that this effect, in and of itself, might suffice to consider the advertising ban a generally pro-freedom initiative?

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Censorship, Environmentalism and Steubenville

Note added on 4/5: Some readers missed the point of this post very badly, which means that it could have been written more clearly. Here is a brief attempt to clarify.

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Here are three dilemmas about public policy:

Farnsworth McCrankypants just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be looking at pornography. It’s not that he thinks porn causes bad behavior; it’s just the idea of other people’s viewing habits that causes him deep psychic distress. Ought Farnsworth’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Farnsworth an argument for discouraging pornography through, say, taxation or regulation?

Granola McMustardseed just hates the idea that someone, somewhere might be altering the natural state of a wilderness area. It’s not that Granola ever plans to visit that area or to derive any other direct benefits from it; it’s just the idea of wilderness desecration that causes her deep psychic distress. Ought Granola’s preferences be weighed in the balance when we make public policy? In other words, is the psychic harm to Granola an argument for discouraging, say, oil drilling in Alaska, either through taxes or regulation?

Let’s suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm — no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I’ve read, was not even aware that she’d been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?

If your answers to questions 1, 2 and 3 were not all identical, what is the key difference among them?

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Deficit Attention Disorder

Imagine you’ve got a drinking problem. And imagine this conversation with your spouse:

Spouse: Dear, you’ve really got to do something about your drinking. You’ve been in three auto accidents this week, you’ve lost your job, and you’ve been trying to beat the children, though you keep passing out before you can get to them. I want to help you figure out how to get this under control.

You: You’ve got a fair point there. But let me point out that it would also be a good idea to redecorate the living room.

Spouse: Well, maybe so, and it’s something we can talk about at some point. But right now, I’d really like to focus on the drinking issue.

You: Doesn’t that strike you as imbalanced? Here we’ve got two issues on the table, and you want to focus 100% on one of them and 0% on the other. Why are you being so one-sided?

Spouse: Well, but I feel like there’s some urgency about the drinking thing, and I’d like to prioritize it.

You: Apparently, you’re fanatical on this issue. I don’t see how I can continue to take you seriously.

Spouse: Well, actually I’m trying to get you to focus on a very serious issue.

You: Yes, but by focusing exclusively on that issue, you’re betraying your fanaticism. Clearly, I’m the one who’s willing to address our problems, and you’re the one who’s just out to score debating points.

Spouse: Huh?

You: Not only that, but I’ve got a Nobel-prize winning economist who agrees with me!

How does that make you feel? I feel that way a lot when I read the news lately. Arguably, our country faces a spending crisis. The Republicans claim they want to deal with that crisis. (There’s some legitimate question about how sincere they are, but they at least say they want to deal with it.) The Democrats say: Okay, but let’s also talk about raising taxes. Maybe they’d also like to talk about redecorating the Rotunda; this seems roughly as pertinent. In other words, the Democrats attempt to deflect attention from the crisis (or the alleged crisis) by insisting that we talk about some other thing at the same time — and then they insist that the Republicans, by insisting that we focus on the issue at hand, are “betraying their fanaticism”. And they’ve managed to find a Nobel-prize winning economist willing to parrot this nonsense almost daily on the pages and webpages of the New York Times.

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I Don’t Get It

The frequently brilliant David Henderson seems to me to have fallen off a cliff in his (limited) defense of the recent tax bill. David thinks it’s a (relatively) good thing that under the new bill, income taxes rise only for those making over $400,000 and the estate tax is locked in only for estates over $5 million. (Relative, that is, to an across-the-board increase.)

David, in other words, seems to be saying that it’s a good thing that the tax code just got more progressive, and that a very small number of people are now going to bear a significantly greater share of the burden. I disagree.

Taxes are too high because spending is too high. But taking the path of spending as given (and David is right when he says that the delay of the sequester bodes very ill for that path), the question is not “how high should taxes be?”; that question is settled. Over time, taxes will be high enough to cover the spending. The only question is “how should the tax burden be distributed?”. The answer the politicians have agreed on is “a whole lot less equally”. They’re taking less now than they might have, but they’ll have to take more in the future, and when that time comes, they’ll have set a precedent that the rich should bear a greater fraction of the burden than they did a month ago.

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Why Do I Feel Like I Fell Off a Cliff?

The fiscal cliff deal that passed the Senate last night is appalling.

It raises marginal tax rates at the top (allegedly to “Clinton era levels” but actually higher once you account for the phaseouts of personal exemptions and itemized deductions), but not for anyone else, nibbling away at the rewards for productivity, and placing an ever-greater share of the tax burden on an ever-smaller fraction of the population.



Edited to add: Greg Mankiw has pointed out to me that the phaseouts were present in the Clinton years as well, so my remark about today’s rates being “higher once you account for the phaseouts” is wrong. On the other hand, as Greg also points out, with the increase in Medicare taxes pursuant to Obamacare, total tax rates are in fact higher than they were under Clinton. Greg points to this link for clarification.

Worse yet, it increases the rates on dividends, capital gains and inheritances, encouraging wealthy people to save less, consume more, and demand a greater share of the world’s resources.

The AMT, one of the few bright spots in the tax code, is permanently “fixed”, which is to say that almost nobody will pay it now.

This deal does absolutely nothing to control entitlement spending, which means it’s 100% fiscally irresponsible. Let’s be clear about this. When you’re overspending, the fiscally responsible thing is to spend less, not to cover the difference by visiting the ATM and depleting your assets. Wealthy taxpayers are the government’s ATM; the assets the government takes today won’t be there when they need more tomorrow. Let’s say it one more time: After all the talk about “fiscal responsibility”, there is nothing fiscally responsible about this deal.

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