September 20, 2017Don't change the forecast; change the policy
September 20, 2017My 1983 Response to Koch Lobbying on Oil
September 20, 2017The Wonder of International Adoption: High School Grades in Sweden
September 19, 2017Does Prosperity Make Us Utilitarian?
September 19, 2017Beckworth interviews Summers
September 18, 2017Private Foundations and their Child-Like Customers
September 18, 2017The Wonder of International Adoption: Adult IQ in Sweden
September 18, 2017Happy Birthday, Dr. Johnson
September 17, 2017Does prosperity push us to the left?
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Bryan Caplan, David Henderson, Alberto Mingardi, and Scott Sumner, with guest blogger Emily Skarbek, blog on issues and insights in economics.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2017
Today the Fed abandoned its previous forecast, which called for 2% inflation in 2018. Now they forecast that inflation will run below 2% in 2018, as it has for most of the past decade.
The Fed is like a ship captain that intends the ship to arrive in New York, forecasts the ship will arrive in Boston, and then refuses to turn the steering wheel enough to equate the geographic goal with the geographic forecast.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2017
In preparation for my imminent retirement, I've been going through files and files, throwing things out but keeping things too.
I came across a letter I wrote to George Pearson of Koch Industries, who took me to dinner in July 1983 to lobby me on something I didn't need lobbying on: oil import fees were and are a bad idea. (Was it legal for him to buy me a nice dinner? Yes. The law changed effective January 1, 1984.)
Here's my letter in response to a document that George gave me at dinner, followed by his response.
Clarification: When I wrote, "Only if refiners price their products at average cost rather than marginal cost will the low price on domestic crude be translated into low product prices," I meant, and should have said "base their product prices on average cost rather than marginal cost." I didn't believe then, and don't believe now, that the retail gasoline industry is a perfectly competitive one. What I was getting at--and I fear I misled George--is that the refiners look at marginal cost rather than average cost in setting prices.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2017
Moving young children from the Third World to Sweden wipes out about half of their national IQ deficit. What about performance in high school? Vinnerljung et al.'s "School Performance at Age 16 Among International Adoptees" (International Social Work, 2010) compiles the numbers, once again breaking them down by regular Swedes, Korean adoptees, and non-Korean adoptees. Since these are high school students rather than conscripts, the data include women, yielding a much larger sample. But otherwise, the national origin of the adoptees is basically the same as in Dalen et al. (2008) and Odenstad et al. (2008). India, Thailand, Chile, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Ethiopia, and Ecuador top the list.
To start, imagine growing up in Sweden had zero effect on high school performance. How would the non-Korean adoptees do? As discussed earlier, if the non-Koreans had average IQ for their home countries, their mean IQ would be 84. On the international PISA tests of science, reading, and math, countries with IQs around 84 score about one standard deviation below Sweden.*
When you look at adoptees' actual grades, however, the performance gap is much smaller. Combining males and females, non-Koreans have an average GPA of 2.95, versus 3.24 for regular Swedes. It's not in the paper, but Vinnerljung emailed me the standard deviation: .78. That's a performance gap of only .37 SDs - over 60% less than you would expect from the PISA scores. The gap is even smaller for non-Koreans who were adopted as infants. And as I emphasized in my previous post, we should expect the international adoptees to be below average for their home countries, so the grade gain of growing up Swedish is probably even greater than it looks.
What about the Korean adoptees? They once again do better than regular Swedes, with an average GPA of 3.42.** That's an edge of .24 SDs - almost exactly the PISA gap between Sweden and Korea.
For grades, like IQ, there are two stories to weave. The pessimist can say, "Even in Sweden, non-Koreans' performance in school is well below average." The optimist can say, "Non-Koreans in Sweden do much better than they would have done back home." While both stories are correct, the latter is far more insightful. The fact that non-Koreans underperform in Swedish schools is obvious at a glance. The fact that non-Koreans excel compared to the relevant counter-factual, in contrast, is easy to miss. Wherever you're from, Sweden is a good place to learn.
* The PISA gap is roughly 100 points, and scores are normed to have a standard deviation of 100.
** This slightly overstates Korean performance, because the Korean adoptees are over two-thirds female, and girls in all groups have higher GPAs than boys. If you separately compare genders, Korean boys are .18 SDs and Korean girls are .18 SDs above the mixed-gender Swedish average.
SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
Scott Sumner has some thought-provoking reactions to my critique of Scott Alexander's Thrive/Survive Theory of left and right. Here's my reaction, point-by-point. Scott's in blockquotes; I'm not.
This is deeply puzzling.
First, if "Liberalism is what happens when you are optimizing for a safe
environment, and illiberalism is what happens when you optimize for
thriving in an unsafe environment," are we talking about selfish optimization or social optimization? If the former, then how does being rich make caring about outsiders "selfishly optimal"? If the latter, then it sounds like utilitarianism requires illiberalism in unsafe environments.
Second, classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism, and neoliberalism have all been widely accused of ignoring the interests of wide swaths of the population. Classical liberals and neoliberals allegedly ignore the interests of the poor; social democrats allegedly ignore the interests of taxpayers and entrepreneurs.
Third, most - perhaps all - of what Scott calls "illiberal" views have been defended on utilitarian grounds. See e.g. James Fitzjames Stephen, noted 19th-century conservative utilitarian. You could say, "I'm classifying views based on whether they really maximize total happiness," but then why include three disparate flavors of "liberalism"? They can't all be right.
Concern for the welfare of others is part of the utilitarian ethos. But so is sober cost-benefit analysis and, as a corollary, hostility to Social Desirability Bias. 1966 may have been a period of relatively high sympathy for blacks (though probably little for Indochinese), but it was also an era of rampant wishful thinking.
Unless I greatly misunderstand Scott, I think he agrees with me that the middle class is doing much better today than in the mid-60s. So how does this example illustrate the positive effect of prosperity on concern for others?
I agree that societies that value the utilitarian package - hard-headed pursuit of general happiness - tend to prosper. But I don't see much sign that the reverse mechanism works well. As I originally said, there is plenty of evidence that prosperity makes societies moderate. That blocks radical changes that harm the general welfare (e.g. mass murder), but also blocks radical changes that help the general welfare (e.g. open borders).
Yes. But the liberalization was accidental!
CATEGORIES: Behavioral Economics and Rationality , Cost-benefit Analysis , Economic Philosophy , Politics and Economics
SEPTEMBER 19, 2017
David Beckworth's recent interview of Larry Summers was a treat for two reasons; there was lots of thought-provoking discussion, and I found a written transcript of the interview. Here's an excerpt (discussing secular stagnation):
You have a demassification of the economy. Think about Amazon rather than malls. Think about the fact that an office building for lawyers now require 600 square feet of space per lawyer where it used to require 1200 square feet of space per lawyer because they no longer need filing cabinets or paralegals to deal with the content of those filing cabinets because of the cloud. And think about the fact that the country's leading technology companies and most valuable companies in the world, Google and Apple, have as their major business problem a surfeit of cash flow and how to manage that cash flow. All of these things taken together suggests ample reason for believing that real interest rates would have trended downwards, and that's in fact what we have seen. And while many at the Fed were very quick to attribute low interest rates to so-called head winds, I thought by 2013 that the head winds theory was implausible and by 2017 that the head winds theory was ludicrous, that it was hard to see what head wind there was by 2017 that one wouldn't expect to be semi-permanent.
I think he's right about the "demassification" of the economy (is that a word?), but I have a slightly different view of bubbles. Summers is probably right that low rates are the new normal, but this should lead to higher than normal asset prices, according to most standard metrics. I've argued that in the 21st century there will be many more examples of phenomenon that people call "bubbles", but that bubbles don't actually exist.
Interestingly, later in the interview Summers expresses views that are closer to my own:
I think the Fed in general has an urge to normalization, but I think it's better for the policies to follow from the arguments, rather than for the arguments to follow from the desired policies. And I don't see the financial stability rationale either. I'm not sure that markets are extraordinarily overvalued. If I believed with confidence that markets were a bubble, I'm not sure that would be a reason to tighten policy. It might be a reason to ease policy. 'Cause when the bubble bursts, we're gonna have a real problem. And so, I might as well get some stimulus into... Behind the economy. So, I don't see the case for tightening. Things could happen in the data in the next several months that change my mind, but on the current evidence, it seems to me that you have to work a bit too hard to manufacture a case for tightening.The Fed tightened policy in 1928-29 to address a perceived stock market bubble, and it led to exactly the sort of policy mistake that Summers worries about here.
Summers says some positive things about NGDP targeting, but at times he seems to lose the thread of the argument:
Second, I think that if you're serious about a symmetric target, you have to be prepared to exceed the target sometimes. If now, after nine years of recovery, with years more of recovery forecast, and with an unemployment rate below 4.5%, if that's not the moment to exceed the 2% target, I don't know when that moment would ever come.Actually, the time to exceed the target is during recessions. The time to fall short is during booms.
I think all those things make an attractive case for nominal GDP. On the other hand, it's the sum of a good and a bad, and that seems a slightly awkward thing to target, and so I'm not absolutely certain that I would prefer it to a price level path target of some kind.Maybe I'm missing something here, but I'd say the mixture of good and bad is precisely what makes NGDP targeting desirable. If you targeted something good you'd want it to be as high as possible and if targeting something bad you'd want it to be as low as possible. The fact that NGDP contains both "good" and "bad" components helps to explain why we don't want the NGDP growth rate to be either too high or too low.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
As we do with many institutions, we tend to think of nonprofits monolithically: nonprofits, we are likely to say, are tax-exempt organizations that benefit the public. We often understand philanthropy in much the same, one-size-fits-all way: philanthropy is giving (whether in time or dollars) that is "other-oriented," as Professor Reich puts it in the first few minutes of this EconTalk conversation on Foundations and Philanthropy.
The reality, however, is that the landscape of nonprofits and donors in the United States is diverse and extensive. Depending on how they are measured or defined, there are 1.5 million entities that qualify as tax-exempt organizations in the United States. You may wish to debate this figure, and, if you do, you'll find plenty of resources and material to assist you. Multiple organizations like Guidestar and Charity Navigator (both nonprofits themselves) collect, review, and analyze data about nonprofits.
Increasingly, institutions of higher learning (most of which are also nonprofits) dedicate considerable time and talent to the study of philanthropy and nonprofit entities. In 2008, Indiana University awarded the nation's first PhD in philanthropic studies. The number of academic departments and centers dedicated to philanthropic studies (like the Center on Philanthropy in Civil Society at Stanford where Professor Reich is faculty co-director) has increased dramatically since the early 1980s when the first nonprofit concentrations were established. New research on nonprofits and philanthropy is being produced every day.
This level of attention is hardly surprising since, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than ten percent of the U.S. workforce is employed by nonprofit organizations of one sort or another. Twenty five percent of the adult population volunteers for those organizations. Then there's the money: in 2016, charitable giving in the United States continued to grow, inching closer to $400 billion.
Whether one believes, as Professor Reich does, that "philanthropy constitutes an exercise of power," it seems fair to assume that those in the nonprofit sector can expect a healthy dose of the scrutiny he demands. With this kind of scale and significant involvement on the part of so many in the country, nonprofits will, for the foreseeable future, surely be subject to increased attention by the government, the academy, and the general public.
It is important to note that Reich and Roberts' conversation does not cover nonprofits generally. The IRS currently lists more than twenty types of tax-exempt organizations. This EconTalk episode focuses on private foundations, one sub-class of one of those many types.
Of the 1.5 million nonprofit entities in the United State, only about seven percent are private foundations. Those seven percent, however, accounted for about fifteen percent (or nearly $60 billion) of charitable giving in 2016, and, if one believes that the philanthropic distribution of funds is an exercise of power, this means private foundations are the most powerful institutions in terms of charitable giving. (Note that individual giving still dwarfs all other kinds of giving combined.)
The episode suggests a number of interesting and important questions, among others: What role does the tax code play in the formation of private foundations? Should wealthy individuals be allowed to preserve that wealth in perpetuity in order to pursue their own, idiosyncratic interests as long as those meet the IRS's definition of an exempt purpose? Shouldn't we be wary of so much power (in the form of philanthropy) wielded by institutions characterized by an "almost complete lack of accountability"?
Reich and Roberts spend some time debating this last question. Reich notes that private foundations are not held accountable by the ballot box or the marketplace as government and for-profit institutions are. Roberts disagrees, arguing that the ballot box doesn't provide as much accountability as Reich believes it does and, provocatively, that the potential grant recipient can, like a dissatisfied customer refusing to shop at a for-profit, reject the foundation's gift. Reich acknowledges this possibility, posits that "it happens with extraordinary infrequency," and goes on to draw an analogy between "needy nonprofit recipients" and the children of wealthy people.
Though I also lack the data to prove it, as one of the 11.4 million Americans employed by a nonprofit entity, my experience suggests that Professor Reich properly estimates the low likelihood of a potential grant recipient turning down a foundation's offer or funds. The explanation for that, however, has less to do with the fact that public charities are "needy" or that they are somehow analogous to the children of the wealthy. In my experience, private foundations seldom offer contributions to unwitting potential recipients (though I would welcome evidence to the contrary [particularly the contact information of the program officers employed by the foundations that distribute these unsolicited grants]).
Instead, the "needy" public charities spend many hours and dollars working to convince private foundations that a) their own activity meets the foundation's mission, b) they can carry out this activity efficiently, economically, and better than the other needy organizations with whom they must compete for dollars, and c) they will be able to demonstrate all of this through some measurement of the activity's impact.
Public charities will seldom be driven by need to take the offer of powerful, idiosyncratic private foundations with whom they disagree because, long before that offer has been tendered, the potential recipient will have decided whether or not to invest the resources in pursuing a grant from the foundation.
Many private foundations will not accept proposals unsolicited, and, in those cases, it is true that the private foundation may approach a public charity. But that approach generally comes in the form of a proposal solicitation, and the potential grantee will still have to choose to invest resources in the completion of that proposal, the execution of the grant, and reporting on the activity.
Jennifer K. Thompson is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Liberty. She began her career teaching philosophy, and later joined Liberty Fund, Inc., a private operating foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana. At Liberty Fund, Dr. Thompson served as fellow, founding director, and vice president of co-sponsored programs. In 2011, she became senior director of programs at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I showed that nurture effects are small within the First World. But I also freely conceded that the nurture effects of growing up outside the First World are probably large:
The most important weakness of behavioral genetics, though, is simply that research focuses on middle-class families in First World countries. The results might not generalize. Twin and adoption studies almost never look at people in Third World countries. So you shouldn't conclude that Haitian orphans would turn out the same way if raised in Sweden.During the last month, I've delved much more deeply into this subject. As you might expect, there is a sizable literature on the effects of international adoption. The evidence on physical benefits is strong and clear-cut. Toddlers adopted from the Third World are tragically below normal on height, weight, and head circumference on arrival. (d is effect size in standard deviations). Within eight years, however, these adoptees close about 75% of height and weight deficits and about 35% of the head circumference deficit.
But what about intellectual benefits? Average IQs in Third World countries are quite low - mid-to-high 80s for Latin America, mid-80s for the Middle East, low-80s for South Asia, 70s or even lower for sub-Saharan Africa.
Before we turn to the evidence, however, there's a major complication. In the First World, children adopted by smarter parents get somewhat higher IQ scores. Unfortunately, these benefits fade-out by adulthood. Me again:
Twin and adoption research on young children's intelligence always finds nurture effects. The younger the child, the more parents matter. A team of prominent behavioral geneticists looked at major adoption studies of IQ. They found moderate nurture effects for children, versus none for adults. Suppose an adoptee grows up in a family with a biological child at the 80th percentile of IQ. During his childhood, we should expect the adoptee to have a higher IQ than 58 percent of his peers. Nurture effects were largest for the youngest kids under observation, four-to six-year-olds. An average child of this age raised in a high-IQ home will typically test higher than 63 percent of his peers. Not bad--but it doesn't last.The upshot is that measuring the IQs of Third World adoptees when they're children isn't very informative. Even if they show large gains, the gains could easily be fleeting. Instead, we should wait and measure those kids' IQs when they're adults.
I had to read a pile of papers, but in the end, I found what I was looking for. Dalen et al.'s "Educational Attainment and Cognitive Competence in Adopted Men" (Children and Youth Services Review, 2008) looks at Swedish conscripts' cognitive test results for (a) 342,526 non-adopted Swedes, 780 adoptees from South Korea, and 1558 adoptees from other non-Western countries. Subjects were roughly 18 years old when they took the test. At my request, Bo Vinnerljung, one of the authors, shared the nationality breakdown for the "other non-Western" countries: India (21%), Thailand (19%), Chile (13%), Sri Lanka (9%), Colombia (9%), Ethiopia (8%), Ecuador (7%), with the remainder from "a wide mix of small groups, e.g., Poland, Peru, Bolivia, a few from other sub-Saharan Africa countries, and a small group from Mid-East countries including Iran."
Suppose you plug in the most commonly-used estimates of IQ by country, assign each of Vinnerjung's "small groups" equal shares of the remainder, and assume international adoptees are average for their home country. Then if they'd stayed in their birth countries, the non-Western adoptees would have a mean IQ of only 84.
So how smart were these non-Western adoptees at maturity (approximately 18 years old)? Let's normalize the scores so overall Swedish IQ is 99 (a typical estimate), with a standard deviation of 15.* Then non-Western adoptees' average score was 88. Four IQs points may sound modest, but it's one of the biggest environmental effects on adult IQ in the literature.
The real magic happens, though, when we look at the breakdown by age of adoption, provided in this companion paper by Odenstad et al.'s "Does Age at Adoption and Geographic Origin Matter?" (Psychological Medicine, 2008).
Other Non-Western IQ by Age of Adoption
Since adoptees' biological families are generally underachievers even by Third World standards, the true IQ benefit of adoption at birth is probably even greater than it looks. Adoptees raised by their biological families could easily have had an average IQ of only 80, implying that early adoption eliminated over half their cognitive deficit.*
At this point, you may be asking, "Wait, what about the Korean adoptees?" They did slightly better than regular Swedes, but markedly worse than regular South Koreans (average national IQ: 106). Their results by age of adoption show no clear pattern:
Other Non-Western IQ by Age of Adoption
If you're using international adoption data to test the view that international IQ differences are 100% environmental, the contrasting performance of Korean and non-Korean adoptees is bound to be disturbing. Sure, you can blame all remaining gaps on pre-natal environment. But if equalizing a vast array of post-natal experiences leaves a big gap, what makes you so sure that equalizing pre-natal experiences would make the gap vanish?
If you're using international adoption data to test the view that international IQ differences are 100% genetic, however, the performance of the non-Korean adoptees is powerful testimony to the wonder of First World upbringing. Suppose the earliest adoptees are average for their home country. Then growing up in Sweden raises their adult IQs by .4 SDs - 40% of the huge IQ gap between Sweden and adoptees' countries of origin. And since even the earliest adoptees are likely below-average for their home country, the true gain is probably larger still. International adoption doesn't make international IQ gaps vanish, but it plausibly cuts them in half. And remember - unlike classic childhood interventions like Head Start, the gains last into adulthood instead of fading away. What other viable, lasting treatment for low IQ is even remotely as effective?
* It is somewhat tempting to assume that if all of these kids had stayed with their biological families, the whole sample would look like the 7-9 year-olds - or worse. But we should resist this temptation. Many of the 7-9 year-old non-Koreans probably grew up in hellish orphanages, which seem noticeably worse for IQ than the typical Third World home. Furthermore, late adoptees plausibly had extra developmental problems that partially caused their delayed adoption.
SEPTEMBER 18, 2017
Google today highlights the birthday of Sam Johnson, the famous British intellectual in the 18th century. He is thought of as the father of the modern dictionary.
I discovered him when I was in 10th grade and was hanging around our sparsely populated school library in rural Manitoba. Fortunately, it had Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. I worked my way through it and wrote down some of my favorites. I found myself writing down a disproportionately high number from Johnson. Here are the ones I remember off the top of my head:
"Worth seeing? Yes. But not worth going to see."
"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
"But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons."
Gentle reader, if you have favorites from Johnson that you would like to share, please do so in the comments.
CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy
SEPTEMBER 17, 2017
Bryan Caplan recently posted the following:
A while back, Scott Alexander defended what he called the "Thrive/Survive Theory" of left and right. Digest version:My hypothesis is that rightism is what happens when you're optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you're optimized for thriving in a safe environment.Scott defends the theory vigorously, but seems most impressed by its ability to explain why "society does seem to be drifting gradually leftward." The more the world thrives, the more the leftist approach genuinely makes sense.
Bryan then lists 6 reasons why Alexander is wrong, which seem fairly persuasive. On the other hand I do find something appealing in Alexander's theory. So let me try a slightly different formulation:
Liberalism is what happens when you are optimizing for a safe environment, and illiberalism is what happens when you optimize for thriving in an unsafe environment.
Now of course this raises a whole new set of issues. What do I mean by 'liberalism' and 'illiberalism'? When I say liberalism, I am including classical liberalism, social democratic liberalism and neoliberalism. I'm basically referring to utilitarianism. When I say illiberal, I am referring to a wide variety of non-utilitarian views, including class warfare (Mao), fascism (Hitler), white nationalism (Bannon), racism (KKK), reverse racism (SJWs), tribalism (Afghanistan), religious fanaticism, militarism, etc.
For utilitarianism to thrive, people need to be comfortable enough to think of the welfare of others. I believe that 1966 was the period when whites had the greatest sympathy for the (economic) well-being of American blacks. And America's middle class was doing very well in the mid-1960s. As America became more violent in the late 1960s, and more troubled by unemployment in the 1970s, some of this sympathy dissipated.
So I think Bryan's right that the left/right distinction is not as meaningful as Scott Alexander assumes, but I also think Scott's intuition led him to something important. I don't know if society is moving to the left, but I do think it is gradually becoming more liberal. Is my suggested version an improvement, or not?
PS. Immigration reform was enacted in 1965.
And for a brief period in late 1965, (liberal) John Lindsey was the face of the Republican Party:
SEPTEMBER 16, 2017
I'm an unabashed admirer of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of the many. Her work is always illuminating, erudite, and typically a rather splendid read. I was most happy to see a new book by her, published in 2017 by Encounter Publishers. Past and Present. The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorian to the Postmodernists brings together a few scattered essays, which all pursue the aim of setting the (British) past and (American) present in a dialogue.
Fabianism is generally described as a moderate, reformist type of socialism, achieving its ends not by class war and revolution but by persuasion and 'permeation'. Yet in a sense it was more radical than Marxism because it sought control not so much of the economy or polity as of society itself. It is fitting that the Fabian Society should have been founded, in 1884, as a society, not a party, for its primary focus was the 'social organism', and its ultimate purpose the 'regeneration of society', the 'reconstruction of the Social System'.
Sydney and Beatrice Webb, she argues, had little faith in "the avarega sensuale man" and didn't "believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances". For this very reason they aimed to "introduce into politics the professional expert - to extend the sphere of government by adding to its enormous advantages of wholesale and compulsory management, the advantage of the most skilled entrepreneur".
Contrasting the Webbs with a young Churchill, Himmelfarb maintains that
The Webbs wanted to organise society in order to curb the anarchy of individualism and create a rational society in which the average sensual man would be prevented from indulging his whims and vices. Churchill wanted to organise society in order to create the condition in which individualism would thrive and the average sensual man - that is to say, everyman - could live his life freely, whims, vices, and all.
I can't comment on young Churchill's flirtation with "Tory democracy", to use a term quite familiar to him.
But, leaving Churchill aside, I think Himmelfarb is hinting here at an important truth. Quite often, advocates of interventionism are not so much interested in alleviating some _particular_ problems but are pursuing the grander goal of moving up from the "anarchy of production", which is: the seemingly acephalous system that the free market is. For the Webbs, explains Himmelfarb, the anarchy of production was paralleled by an anarchy of society, which needed to be reined in to check its lack of order and redundancy in order to realise the alleged "greater good" of society. Readers of Thomas Leonard's Illiberal Reformers won't be surprised.
In this context, it is certainly true that there are at least two different kinds of social reformers: the control freaks which cover their desire for a top down plan of society with whatever social goals spark interest at the moment, and those interested in dealing with particular problems, who are often wise enough to understand that it might be easier to alleviate than altogether to "solve" them. A more open question is if the good work of the latter reduce the scope for the ambitions of the first, or inadvertently grow them instead.
CATEGORIES: Book Club
SEPTEMBER 16, 2017
Over at Hit and Run, Reason's blog, Robby Soave, whose work I normally like a lot, laid an egg. His post is titled "The Real Boobs Are People Who Think ESPN Must Fire Jemele Hill."
You can read his post, which is not long, and figure out all the players.
Here's the paragraph that was off-key:
Travis, Sanders, and Trump all seem to be making the same mistake: the First Amendment does not require ESPN to be politically neutral, or polite, or even-handed. It protects Hill's right to call Trump a white supremacist, and also Travis's right to say "boobs" on television.
Everything after the colon is true. But Robby never makes clear what mistake Clay Travis, a sports radio host, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, and President Donald Trump are making.
What all three did was criticize ESPN. None of them said, or even hinted, that the First Amendment requires "ESPN to be politically neutral, or polite, or even-handed."
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are way too important to get wrong. And both freedoms include the freedom to criticize.
By the way, some of the worst comments in the blogosphere are on the Hit and Run site. But, in this case, a number of the commenters nailed it.
SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
American threats often allow rather terrible regimes to flex their muscles and build up greater consensus. In Venezuela, the government
held nationwide armed forces exercises on Saturday, calling on civilians to join reserve units to defend against a possible attack after U.S. President Donald Trump warned that a "military option" was on the table for the crisis-hit country. ... Maduro used Trump's threat to try to energize his political base, broadcasting images of rifle-carrying civilians negotiating obstacle courses and learning hand-to-hand combat. The government created the hashtag #EsHoraDeDefenderLaPatria, which translates as "It's Time To Defend The Homeland," to promote the exercises.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, in his latest column for the Independent Institute, points out that "Trump is right to want Maduro out, but whoever is advising him on matters of the Western Hemisphere should explain that the threat of military action only helps the Chavista dictatorship and risks debilitating the wide-ranging anti-Chavista political front that has lately emerged in Latin America".
Vargas Llosa, who is as far as a fan of Maduro as you could go, explains that:
Maduro, who has violated his country's constitution, destroyed its institutions, incarcerated hundreds of opponents, and killed hundreds of protesters, needs to go. Anything that can be done by other countries at the civil-society level to help accelerate this will be welcomed by Latin Americans. But the kind of talk recently coming out of Washington merely makes life more difficult for the opposition.
It is sometimes disheartening to see that the same mistake is made over and over again. In a way, it is what happened for years with the US Cuban embargo (which, to quote co-blogger David Henderson, made "Cubans somewhat more anti-American than they would be otherwise, and it makes them somewhat more in favor of - or at least less against - Castro"). Why does a sensible antipathy to an awful regime fuel counter-productive policies, that in the very end consolidate that regime?
CATEGORIES: Foreign Policy
SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
Lots of non-economists think that economics is just common sense. Not so. It's not common sense that imports help an economy, or that price gouging is good and rent controls are bad. And the field of taxation also produces lots of surprising results. The following list refers to equal size, across-the-board taxes:
1. Consumption taxes = wage taxes.
2. Import tariffs = export taxes
3. Import subsidies = export subsidies
4. An import tariff plus an equal export subsidy cancels out
5. A fair tax system taxes only wage income, not capital income.
I'm going to use some of those ideas when considering a recent post by Noah Smith, which discussed research showing that firms that began exporting tended to have faster productivity growth. He suggested that we might want to use public policy to encourage exports. I agree, but am not in favor of his preferred method:
The U.S. currently does some export promotion, via the Export-Import Bank. But this tends to focus on large companies that are already competitive in world markets. A better approach would be to provide assistance for companies to start exporting, by providing them with targeted loans, information about foreign markets and assistance developing overseas sales operations.When I think of the government doing something, I think of the department of motor vehicles. (I need to visit the California DMV Monday---wish me luck.) I don't trust government to run that sort of program efficiently.
Fortunately there is another way to boost exports---reduce taxes on imports. The beauty of this proposal is that it's likely to make the US economy more efficient even if the research Smith cites is 100% wrong. That's because trade barriers create inefficiency, what economists call "deadweight loss".
I also take issue with this claim:
Also, the U.S. should consider being less tolerant of countries that intervene in markets to keep their currencies cheap versus the dollar -- as China did back in the 2000s. This acts as a subsidy for those countries' exporters, but it's also effectively a tax on imports from the U.S. Getting tougher on currency manipulation could help U.S. companies start selling overseas.I've recently done several posts arguing that "currency manipulation" is a myth. But even if I am wrong, currency manipulation is not at all like a subsidy to exports and a tax on imports. Indeed a subsidy on exports and a tax on imports would exactly offset, leaving no effect on trade. After all, exports are how China pays for imports. (That sort of tax/subsidy scheme would be like a 10 cent/gallon subsidy for gas stations combined with a 10 cent tax on gas consumers--no effect.)
People who worry about currency manipulation clearly do believe it affects trade. They believe that currency manipulation caused more exports and fewer imports today. (They rarely mention that this reverses in the long run, and it would cause China to export less and import more in future years.)
Taxes and subsidies are not the same as price changes, because taxes and subsidies drive a wedge between what sellers pay and what buyers receive, whereas price changes (including exchange rate changes) do not. They are completely different situations, and should not be confused with each other.
CATEGORIES: International Macroeconomics: Exchange Rates, International Debt, etc. , International Trade , Taxation
SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
In May 2012, the IGM Forum, based at the University of Chicago Booth School, did a poll of economists on a proposed anti-price-gouging law in Connecticut. The economists polled were on the IGM's panel of "experts." To clarify, the vast majority of economists on the panel are experts in their own field. Their knowledge of items outside their field, as much of the polling data on many other issues show, ranges from very good down to sketchy.
Here's the exact wording of the statement with which the economists were asked to agree or disagree:
Connecticut should pass its Senate Bill 60, which states that during a "severe weather event emergency, no person within the chain of distribution of consumer goods and services shall sell or offer to sell consumer goods or services for a price that is unconscionably excessive."
Now here's the good news: Only 8% of the economists polled agreed or strongly agreed. 51% of those polled disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Moreover, when they were asked to weight their answers by their confidence in their answers, the results shifted strongly toward opposition. 7% agreed or strongly agreed. But 77% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Some of the economists acted like lawyers. David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, opined:
Without defining "unconscionably," I don't know what to think about this.
But no one knows what "unconscionably" means. That wouldn't stop the enforcers. Does Professor Cutler really have much doubt about how such a law would be enforced? As Richard Schmalensee of MIT pointed out, "unconscionably" is a bug, not a feature. He wrote:
Seeks to prevent prices from clearing markets; never a good thing. Standard is hopelessly vague so increases risk for affected businesses.
Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago expressed thoughts similar to ones I wrote recently in criticizing his more recent statement. I had written:
As I pointed out in my interview, by allowing price gouging, we get, to some extent, the best of both worlds. We get the traditional merchants like Wal-Mart, who worry about reputation, stocking certain supplies in advance and not raising prices. We also get the fringe, one-time suppliers, bringing in more supplies in response to the higher prices they can charge.
Thaler said it more succinctly, writing:
Not needed. Big firms hold prices firm. "Entrepreneurs" with trucks help meet supply. Are the latter covered? If so, bad.
I wish he had said that in his recent radio interview. Of course, it's possible he did but that the Marketplace producers cut that portion.
CATEGORIES: Price Controls
SEPTEMBER 14, 2017
Former star student Thomas Strenge wrote me an interesting email and gave me permission to quote. What follows below is my slightly edited version of what he wrote.
My Mom lives about 10 miles inland from Naples and her experience of Hurricane Irma offers great economics lessons. And yes, she holds popular misconceptions on price gouging, even though I try to explain it to her.
. Gas stations ran out as early as Wednesday (Hurricane didn't approach until late afternoon on Saturday). My guess is that the panic making by media and public officials combined with the lack of price increases depleted supplies. I'm sure truckers were unwilling to make deliveries down South without a risk premium, which couldn't be paid without price increases.
. Supermarkets also experienced panic buying.
. Collier County (which includes Naples) announced mandatory evacuation, but Mom decided to stay. She was on the inland side, at least 10 miles from shore, but even predicted storm flooding never reached more than 5 miles. Also, she built her house soundly and her roof line is lower than the surrounding trees of the adjacent nature preserve. Many of her neighbors opted likewise. (Local knowledge versus central planning)
. Also, the government shelters either did not accept pets or required them to be caged. Apparently, Florida authorities are now pursuing legal charges against those who abandoned their pets. (Kafkaesque?)
. The storm stayed offshore, but was plenty scary. Mom suffered damage to her yard, but the house was fine. She lost power and cell phone coverage.
. On Monday, after driving for an hour, she was able to call us and let us know she's OK.
. Today, cellphone coverage continues to improve and she was able to call repeatedly.
. Anecdotally, the old style wooden power line poles appear to have survived better than the newer style concrete power line poles. Wood can bend in the wind. Concrete snaps at some point. Electricity is not expected until some time next week.
. The local police department refused to let her charge her phone. Apparently, citizens able to report an issue is not important to the government. Luckily, the local fire department was much more helpful.
. Ironically, Mom noticed that government utility vehicles were idle, apparently due to lack of gas.
. Both McDonald's and Publix Supermarkets opened today with generator power. McDonald's offered a slimmed down menu of chicken mcnuggets and cheeseburgers. No special orders, but you could get as much as you wanted. Drive-thru only. Publix did experience panic buying and people bought everything, including detergent (if you have no power, then you can't do laundry!). (Bounded rationality?)
. Mom learned of openings/availability through private conversations. Little useful government communication.
. Things are hot, but all in all not bad, and improving rapidly. Main roads are passable. And neighbors are helping each other clear debris from roads/houses/driveways. Private sector is outperforming government.
Note from DRH: Today or tomorrow I will post about some interesting survey results on laws against price gouging.
SEPTEMBER 14, 2017
Whenever I praise Tyler, I vaguely fear that I'm speaking a self-defeating prophesy. But this is so good I can't resist:
Sometimes you hear Texas described as a "low-wage" economy, perhaps contrasted with the high wages of California. But there are some subtle wage effects from the Texas approach that often go unnoticed. By drawing people out of high-rent areas, Texas keeps the lid on land rents elsewhere, thereby boosting real wages in say San Francisco. Furthermore, San Francisco employers must pay their workers more, the more attractive is the "move to Texas" option. So the full positive effect of the Texas model on wages is considerably higher than you can see by looking at Texas wages alone. Once again, the distinction between the seen and the unseen turns out to be relevant.Tyler's last line is, of course, a Bastiat reference. Read his words, and dwell upon his profundity (and occasional error).
SEPTEMBER 13, 2017
One of my former students, a student who performed very well in my class and has kept in touch on economic issues, sent me a link to John Cassidy, "A New Way to Learn Economics," New Yorker, September 11, 2017.
In the piece, Cassidy is very gung-ho on a lengthy e-book called The Economy. It is published by the Core team and is being used in some economics courses. Its main virtue--and here I agree with Cassidy--is its price: zero. The book has lecture outlines, graphs, interviews, and questions for the reader to test his or her understanding.
I don't have time to review it in full but I did check a few things. Do not regard this as a complete review. These are quick impressions.
The Big Positive
The biggest virtue I've seen so far is the hockey stick. It shows just how dramatically standards of living have improved since 1800. The graph, if you don't read it carefully, understates the growth of living standards because, as the authors point out, it's a ratio scale. That is, going from a per capita income of, say, $250 to $500 gets the same vertical increase as going from $500 to $1,000 even though the latter increase is twice the former.
Oddly, though, even on this big positive there's a negative. The authors take only two of the three important things from the graph. They write:
. For a very long time, living standards did not grow in any sustained way.
What's the unmentioned conclusion and, in my view, by far the most important? Not that for a long time living standards didn't grow but that, almost everywhere living standards have exploded.
1. In discussing private property, the authors write:
I didn't notice anything wrong with that. But to test myself, I took the quiz. And guess what? This economist, with a Ph.D. from a top institution at the time (UCLA) and who has taught for almost 40 years, got the answer wrong.
Here was the question:
Which of the following are examples of private property?
I suggest you figure out your own answer before reading what follows.
I answered that all but farmer's land in Soviet Russia were private property. (I was assuming that "your college" means a private college, as, possibly, the authors assumed also. If it was a state university, it's hard to say that the computer is private property.)
Wrong, according to the authors. A worker's skills are not his property. Why? It goes back to the definition. He can't sell his skills or give them away. But that makes me challenge their definition. I don't think an essential part of private property is that one be able to sell it or give it away.
2. The inflation section is horrible.
First, the really horrible one: it does not even mention the Friedman insight that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon." That is, according to Friedman, there has never been a sustained inflation without a prior increase in the money supply. Even if the authors disagree with this, they should mention it. Maybe they can find counterexamples here and there, but they're pretty rare.
What's the authors' explanation of inflation? Are you ready? Here it is:
Inflation arises from conflicts among economic actors, when they are powerful enough that their claims on goods and services are inconsistent.
Second, in analyzing the effects of inflation on debtors and creditors, fails to distinguish between anticipated and unanticipated inflation. The authors write:
More generally, using the same logic as we used when discussing the government's debt in the previous unit, inflation means that:
But if, say, a 4% inflation rate is anticipated when lenders and borrowers enter contractual agreements, and then the 4% inflation rate actually comes about, there is not a wealth transfer from lenders to borrowers.
Notice that they mention Zimbabwe. That should have keyed them to mentioning the monetary cause of Zimbabwe's inflation, and then to looking at monetary policy more generally.
3. The section on the Great Depression was the worst part I looked at. It could have used some wisdom and data from Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz's classic book, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. They don't even mention it and, not surprisingly, therefore, don't mention the 30% drop in the money supply that Friedman and Schwartz documented. At least I couldn't find it. The authors appear to judge monetary policy during the Depression solely by interest rates. This flushing of Friedman and Schwartz down the memory hole is, in my view, the biggest weakness of the book I've seen so far.
HT2 to Tom Pilkerton.
CATEGORIES: Economic Education
SEPTEMBER 13, 2017
As a consumer, I'm never scared to shop in legal but unregulated markets. Never mind the right to sue; reputation and guarantees provide all the peace of mind I need. Illegal, unregulated markets, however, are a different story. Sure, they still have an incentive to protect their reputation. But if an illegal firm's reputation gets too big, it draws unwanted attention from law enforcement. Legal enforcement is grossly overrated, but legality is still vital.
The upshot: While I'm personally strongly in favor of human smuggling to evade unjust immigration laws, I'm ambivalent about human smugglers themselves. What's the ratio of honest outlaws to ruthless predators? This article gives lots of suggestive details, but few usable numbers:
But what's really going on? Well, the UN estimates a bit over a million crossers in 2015, with 3,771 recorded deaths. Even if you think actual deaths are triple the recorded rate, that's roughly a 1% fatality rate. Tragic, but given the level of smuggling and the risks required to avoid detection, it's surprisingly low. I'd definitely take a 1% chance of death to escape Syria, and probably make the same deal to escape 90% of the countries in Africa.
In fact, suppose smugglers were pure philanthropists who only wanted to help people reach Europe alive. There's a clear trade-off between the two goals - the safest routes will also be the most patrolled. So you have to wonder: If philanthropists ran the human smuggling industry, how much lower could fatality rates even fall?
SEPTEMBER 13, 2017
Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller recently made some comments about Bitcoin:
When it comes to economic bubbles, there is perhaps no single greater authority than Yale economics professor Robert Shiller. Shiller wrote a seminal book on speculation and its devolution into mania, called Irrational Exuberance. The book analyzes bubbles throughout centuries. Shiller has won the Nobel prize for his work in the area. Among his other contributions, he has created tools and indexes for measuring price levels and valuations. So when Shiller suggests that the bitcoin space might be a bubble, investors would be wise to take note. "Irrational Exuberance" and Bitcoin In an interview with Quartz, Shiller said that the "best example right now" of irrational exuberance is bitcoin.Is it true that investors "would be wise to take note"? More importantly, how would we evaluate that claim? I don't think we as a society know how to evaluate these claims, and indeed I think we do so in the wrong way.
One solution is to simply wait until we see what happens. If the price falls sharply, then that would confirm Shiller's prediction. If it rises further, or even levels off for many years and decades, then he's wrong. But I see a couple problems with that common sense approach:
1. The returns are likely to be skewed. To take the most obvious example; it's much more likely that bitcoin will rise from $5000 to $15000, than fall from $5000 to negative $5000. Indeed there is a zero lower bound on bitcoin prices.
Now suppose that markets are efficient and bubbles do not exist. Also consider an asset with a very uncertain value, because its fundamentals are not well understood---like a new privately issued fiat electronic currency. Now go back to when the price of bitcoin was $30, and people were already calling it a bubble. Investors presumably knew there was some probability that bitcoin would catch on in a big way and soar much higher in value. They also knew that the price could never fall below zero. So it might go up to $1000 or more, but will definitely not fall more that $30. Sounds like a great investment, right? No, because if markets are efficient then the probability of it falling back toward zero must be many times higher than the probability of it rising up to $1000 or more. We just happen to live in a universe where a very improbable event occurred; its valued soared more than 100-fold (indeed more than 1000-fold if you go back even earlier in time.)
My point is that when people predict that bitcoin type investments are bubbles, they are usually going to appear to be correct in retrospect, even if bubbles do not exist. That's simply an implication of the skewness in the returns. A low probability of high upside, and a high probability of modest downside. So being "correct" actually doesn't prove very much.
2. A second problem is related to "data mining". To his credit, Shiller makes very public predictions that can be discovered using Google. Thus I quickly discovered a January 2014 article where Shiller claimed that Bitcoin was a bubble:
Shiller is convinced bitcoin is a bubble and he is bemused by the fascination surrounding digital currencies. He said he is amazed by how people are excited by bitcoin - and bear in mind that a man who won the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of behavioural probably isn't easy to surprise, let alone amaze. Shiller said:"It is a bubble, there is no question about it. ... It's just an amazing example of a bubble."It would be rather presumptuous to argue with a Nobel laureate, but luckily someone already did that. Back in December Forbes put Shiller's work to the test, comparing his findings with the bitcoin bubble.
I don't have a big problem with Worstall's "more than likely" remark, given the skewness discussed earlier. But I do have a problem with Shiller's claim. At the time, bitcoin was at over $800. A year later it had fallen to $200. Good call, right? Not quite, because today it's over $4000. How can there be "no question about it", when three years later bitcoin at $800 looks like an absolute steal? Were investors "wise to take note" of Shiller's 2014 call? Not if the alternative was buy and hold until today.
To summarize, Shiller made a bubble call in January 2014. Most bubble calls for assets with highly asymmetric returns will look "correct" in retrospect, even if markets are 100% efficient and bubbles do not actually exist. And that's true of people who only make a single bubble call.
But Shiller is making repeated bubble calls, just as he talked about irrational exuberance in the stock market in both 1996 and 2000. So which prediction do we hold him accountable for? If Bitcoin falls in half over the next 12 months, does that prove his 2017 prediction correct, or does it show his 2014 call to be incorrect? (prices would still be far above 2014 levels.) How do we evaluate the record of bubble forecasters who keep making one bubble call after another, until the highly volatile asset finally has a big price drop?
Here's my claim. Bubble forecasts for highly volatile assets are not very useful, because of the reasons discussed above. These bubble calls do not represent good investment advice, and we have no reliable way to test them, even in retrospect. We do have some methods for testing for the existence of bubbles, but they need to be far more systematic. In fairness, Shiller has also done some of those more systematic tests, and found some intriguing results (such as what looks like excess volatility in US equity indices.) Even those tests can be challenged, but they are at least suggestive.
But these recent bitcoin bubble calls are virtually untestable. I don't believe bubbles exist, however I also think the probability that Bitcoin prices will be lower in 2020 than today is much greater than the probability that prices will be higher. But that doesn't mean it's a bad investment, because prices might be vastly higher. And if lower, that provides very little support for bubble theories, because that outcome is likely to occur even if bubbles don't exist.
SEPTEMBER 12, 2017
by Art Carden
Various incarnations of what is known as "Godwin's Law" suggest that if a discussion goes on long enough, it will invariably devolve into one party comparing the other party's position to Hitler or the Nazis. Similar principles include the argumentum ad Hitlerum, which is a fallacious argument that attempts to discredit another's position by invoking Hitler.
On a family vacation, I once saw a fascinating History Channel special on the American Nazi movement in the late twentieth century. The special piqued my interest for several reasons. First, I have done research on the relationship between racist violence, economic development, and social change. Second, the power of ideas--particularly divisive ideas that pit a wise and virtuous "us" versus a degraded and inferior "them"--manifests itself in historical atrocities like the Holocaust, Jim Crow, the Great Leap Forward, and the Gulag Archipelago. Third, people sometimes conflate the right to speak freely with the right to an audience and a subsidized soapbox. Conflicts about "free speech" for groups like the Nazis and the KKK are rooted not in the merits (or lack thereof) of hate speech but in questions about who gets to use public property.
History provides ample evidence that ideas matter, and not just the ideas of those who stand to gain or lose materially from policies. Southern slavery was undergirded by a racist ideology that developed as part of the system and that helped ensure support for the system even among non-slaveholders, and the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s were enabled in part by anti-Semitic public opinion. It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and the power of racism throughout history provides ample evidence of cases in which opinion leaders were asleep at the wheel. How much poorer are we for it? Fortunately, great thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and others escaped the Nazis. How many great minds perished in the concentration camps? What great books were never written and what great advances in science were never made because racist violence felled people in their prime? We will never know, but it is a question that deserves somber reflection.
Public property creates many thorny issues about freedom of speech that can only be resolved with private property. The aforementioned History Channel special discussed a conflict in which the American Nazi party was trying to get the permits it wanted in order to stage a rally. With the attempted extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust only a few decades old, this was still an extremely divisive issue. The root of the conflict, however, concerned the use of taxpayer funded private lands. While local authorities tried to stop the Nazis at every turn, they were ultimately represented by the ACLU (and by a Jewish lawyer, incidentally) in a case in which they were ultimately granted the right to march.
You have a clear right to express views that others find offensive, but airing offensive views raises the prospect of violent objection from those who are offended. Who is responsible for paying for security? It certainly isn't the taxpayer or the municipal authorities. Further, the police-perpetrated outrages that occurred during the Civil Rights Era suggested that it is probably a mistake to trust the government to keep the peace.
Spewing hate would have been much more difficult in a world with secure private property rights. Right now, expressive racism is cheap. You need to be able to fill out the forms to get a permit, carry a few signs, shout loudly, and if you are really sharp, you might need someone who can write a good press release. My guess is that hate speech would be much more expensive if now-public spaces were privately owned. You would not need a permit, but you would need to rent a space from a private owner. This is not a praxeological certainty, but I would expect that businesses who earn a reputation for supporting Nazis or the KKK would lose business.
There is no principled way to exclude people with hateful messages from use of the public square. There are, however, principled ways to exclude people with hateful messages from the use of private property. I agree with Steven Landsburg that tolerance and pluralism are the prices we pay for freedom, but we can draw the line at the use of real resources. There are a lot of things I can do with my time and money that I would greatly prefer to helping foot the bill for security and port-a-potties for KKK rallies. I do not object to racists' rights to spread their message, though I object to their message. I especially object to their use of others' money to spread that message. If you wish to spew hate, I'm not going to stop you. I'm also not going to volunteer to provide you with a forum or security, either.
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