Yes, but what about the next 5000 years?

JDN 2456991 PST 1:34.

This week’s post will be a bit different: I have a book to review. It’s called Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber. The book is long (about 400 pages plus endnotes), but such a compelling read that the hours melt away. “The First 5000 Years” is an incredibly ambitious subtitle, but Graeber actually manages to live up to it quite well; he really does tell us a story that is more or less continuous from 3000 BC to the present.

So who is this David Graeber fellow, anyway? None will be surprised that he is a founding member of Occupy Wall Street—he was in fact the man who coined “We are the 99%”. (As I’ve studied inequality more, I’ve learned he made a mistake; it really should be “We are the 99.99%”.) I had expected him to be a historian, or an economist; but in fact he is an anthropologist. He is looking at debt and its surrounding institutions in terms of a cultural ethnography—he takes a step outside our own cultural assumptions and tries to see them as he might if he were encountering them in a foreign society. This is what gives the book its freshest parts; Graeber recognizes, as few others seem willing to, that our institutions are not the inevitable product of impersonal deterministic forces, but decisions made by human beings.

(On a related note, I was pleasantly surprised to see in one of my economics textbooks yesterday a neoclassical economist acknowledging that the best explanation we have for why Botswana is doing so well—low corruption, low poverty by African standards, high growth—really has to come down to good leadership and good policy. For once they couldn’t remove all human agency and mark it down to grand impersonal ‘market forces’. It’s odd how strong the pressure is to do that, though; I even feel it in myself: Saying that civil rights progressed so much because Martin Luther King was a great leader isn’t very scientific, is it? Well, if that’s what the evidence points to… why not? At what point did ‘scientific’ come to mean ‘human beings are helplessly at the mercy of grand impersonal forces’? Honestly, doesn’t the link between science and technology make matters quite the opposite?)

Graeber provides a new perspective on many things we take for granted: in the introduction there is one particularly compelling passage where he starts talking—with a fellow left-wing activist—about the damage that has been done to the Third World by IMF policy, and she immediately interjects: “But surely one has to pay one’s debts.” The rest of the book is essentially an elaboration on why we say that—and why it is absolutely untrue.

Graeber has also made me think quite a bit differently about Medieval society and in particular Medieval Islam; this was certainly the society in which the writings of Socrates were preserved and algebra was invented, so it couldn’t have been all bad. But in fact, assuming that Graeber’s account is accurate, Muslim societies in the 14th century actually had something approaching the idyllic fair and free market to which all neoclassicists aspire. They did so, however, by rejecting one of the core assumptions of neoclassical economics, and you can probably guess which one: the assumption that human beings are infinite identical psychopaths. Instead, merchants in Medieval Muslim society were held to high moral standards, and their livelihood was largely based upon the reputation they could maintain as upstanding good citizens. Theoretically they couldn’t even lend at interest, though in practice they had workarounds (like payment in installments that total slightly higher than the original price) that amounted to low rates of interest. They did not, however, have anything approaching the levels of interest that we have today in credit cards at 29% or (it still makes me shudder every time I think about it) payday loans at 400%. Paying on installments to a Muslim merchant would make you end up paying about a 2% to 4% rate of interest—which sounds to me almost exactly what it should be, maybe even a bit low because we’re not taking inflation into account. In any case, the moral standards of society kept people from getting too poor or too greedy, and as a result there was little need for enforcement by the state. In spite of myself I have to admit that may not have been possible without the theological enforcement provided by Islam.
Graeber also avoids one of the most common failings of anthropologists, the cultural relativism that makes them unwilling to criticize any cultural practice as immoral even when it obviously is (except usually making exceptions for modern Western capitalist imperialism). While at times I can see he was tempted to go that way, he generally avoids it; several times he goes out of his way to point out how women were sold into slavery in hunter-gatherer tribes and how that contributed to the institutions of chattel slavery that developed once Western powers invaded.

Anthropologists have another common failing that I don’t think he avoids as well, which is a primitivist bent in which anthropologists speak of ancient societies as idyllic and modern societies as horrific. That’s part of why I said ‘if Graber’s account is accurate,’ because I’m honestly not sure it is. I’ll need to look more into the history of Medieval Islam to be sure. Graeber spends a great deal of time talking about how our current monetary system is fundamentally based on threats of violence—but I can tell you that I have honestly never been threatened with violence over money in my entire life. Not by the state, not by individuals, not by corporations. I haven’t even been mugged—and that’s the sort of the thing the state exists to prevent. (Not that I’ve never been threatened with violence—but so far it’s always been either something personal, or, more often, bigotry against LGBT people.) If violence is the foundation of our monetary system, then it’s hiding itself extraordinarily well. Granted, the violence probably pops up more if you’re near the very bottom, but I think I speak for most of the American middle class when I say that I’ve been through a lot of financial troubles, but none of them have involved any guns pointed at my head. And you can’t counter this by saying that we theoretically have laws on the books that allow you to be arrested for financial insolvency—because that’s always been true, in fact it’s less true now than any other point in history, and Graeber himself freely admits this. The important question is how many people actually get violence enforced upon them, and at least within the United States that number seems to be quite small.

Graeber describes the true story of the emergence of money historically, as the result of military conquest—a way to pay soldiers and buy supplies when in an occupied territory where nobody trusts you. He demolishes the (always fishy) argument that money emerged as a way of mediating a barter system: If I catch fish and he makes shoes and I want some shoes but he doesn’t want fish right now, why not just make a deal to pay later? This is of course exactly what they did. Indeed Graeber uses the intentionally provocative word communism to describe the way that resources are typically distributed within families and small villages—because it basically is “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. (I would probably use the less-charged word “community”, but I have to admit that those come from the same Latin root.) He also describes something I’ve tried to explain many times to neoclassical economists to no avail: There is equally a communism of the rich, a solidarity of deal-making and collusion that undermines the competitive market that is supposed to keep the rich in check. Graeber points out that wine, women and feasting have been common parts of deals between villages throughout history—and yet are still common parts of top-level business deals in modern capitalism. Even as we claim to be atomistic rational agents we still fall back on the community norms that guided our ancestors.

Another one of my favorite lines in the book is on this very subject: “Why, if I took a free-market economic theorist out to an expensive dinner, would that economist feel somewhat diminished—uncomfortably in my debt—until he had been able to return the favor? Why, if he were feeling competitive with me, would he be inclined to take me someplace even more expensive?” That doesn’t make any sense at all under the theory of neoclassical rational agents (an infinite identical psychopath would just enjoy the dinner—free dinner!—and might never speak to you again), but it makes perfect sense under the cultural norms of community in which gifts form bonds and generosity is a measure of moral character. I also got thinking about how introducing money directly into such exchanges can change them dramatically: For instance, suppose I took my professor out to a nice dinner with drinks in order to thank him for writing me recommendation letters. This seems entirely appropriate, right? But now suppose I just paid him $30 for writing the letters. All the sudden it seems downright corrupt. But the dinner check said $30 on it! My bank account debit is the same! He might go out and buy a dinner with it! What’s the difference? I think the difference is that the dinner forms a relationship that ties the two of us together as individuals, while the cash creates a market transaction between two interchangeable economic agents. By giving my professor cash I would effectively be saying that we are infinite identical psychopaths.

While Graeber doesn’t get into it, a similar argument also applies to gift-giving on holidays and birthdays. There seriously is—I kid you not—a neoclassical economist who argues that Christmas is economically inefficient and should be abolished in favor of cash transfers. He wrote a book about it. He literally does not understand the concept of gift-giving as a way of sharing experiences and solidifying relationships. This man must be such a joy to have around! I can imagine it now: “Will you play catch with me, Daddy?” “Daddy has to work, but don’t worry dear, I hired a minor league catcher to play with you. Won’t that be much more efficient?”

This sort of thing is what makes Debt such a compelling read, and Graeber does make some good points and presents a wealth of historical information. So now it’s time to talk about what’s wrong with the book, the things Graeber gets wrong.

First of all, he’s clearly quite ignorant about the state-of-the-art in economics, and I’m not even talking about the sort of cutting-edge cognitive economics experiments I want to be doing. (When I read what Molly Crockett has been working on lately in the neuroscience of moral judgments, I began to wonder if I should apply to University College London after all.)

No, I mean Graeber is ignorant of really basic stuff, like the nature of government debt—almost nothing of what I said in that post is controversial among serious economists; the equations certainly aren’t, though some of the interpretation and application might be. (One particularly likely sticking point called “Ricardian equivalence” is something I hope to get into in a future post. You already know the refrain: Ricardian equivalence only happens if you live in a world of infinite identical psychopaths.) Graeber has internalized the Republican talking points about how this is money our grandchildren will owe to China; it’s nothing of the sort, and most of it we “owe” to ourselves. In a particularly baffling passage Graeber talks about how there are no protections for creditors of the US government, when creditors of the US government have literally never suffered a single late payment in the last 200 years. There are literally no creditors in the world who are more protected from default—and only a few others that reach the same level, such as creditors to the Bank of England.

In an equally-bizarre aside he also says in one endnote that “mainstream economists” favor the use of the gold standard and are suspicious of fiat money; exactly the opposite is the case. Mainstream economists—even the neoclassicists with whom I have my quarrels—are in almost total agreement that a fiat monetary system managed by a central bank is the only way to have a stable money supply. The gold standard is the pet project of a bunch of cranks and quacks like Peter Schiff. Like most quacks, the are quite vocal; but they are by no means supported by academic research or respected by top policymakers. (I suppose the latter could change if enough Tea Party Republicans get into office, but so far even that hasn’t happened and Janet Yellen continues to manage our fiat money supply.) In fact, it’s basically a consensus among economists that the gold standard caused the Great Depression—that in addition to some triggering event (my money is on Minsky-style debt deflation—and so is Krugman’s), the inability of the money supply to adjust was the reason why the world economy remained in such terrible shape for such a long period. The gold standard has not been a mainstream position among economists since roughly the mid-1980s—before I was born.

He makes this really bizarre argument about how because Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and West Germany are major holders of US Treasury bonds and became so under US occupation—which is indisputably true—that means that their development was really just some kind of smokescreen to sell more Treasury bonds. First of all, we’ve never had trouble selling Treasury bonds; people are literally accepting negative interest rates in order to have them right now. More importantly, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and West Germany—those exact four countries, in that order—are the greatest economic success stories in the history of the human race. West Germany was rebuilt literally from rubble to become once again a world power. The Asian Tigers were even more impressive, raised from the most abject Third World poverty to full First World high-tech economy status in a few generations. If this is what happens when you buy Treasury bonds, we should all buy as many Treasury bonds as we possibly can. And while that seems intuitively ridiculous, I have to admit, China’s meteoric rise also came with an enormous investment in Treasury bonds. Maybe the secret to economic development isn’t physical capital or exports or institutions; nope, it’s buying Treasury bonds. (I don’t actually believe this, but the correlation is there, and it totally undermines Graeber’s argument that buying Treasury bonds makes you some kind of debt peon.)

Speaking of correlations, Graeber is absolutely terrible at econometrics; he doesn’t even seem to grasp the most basic concepts. On page 366 he shows this graph of the US defense budget and the US federal debt side by side in order to argue that the military is the primary reason for our national debt. First of all, he doesn’t even correct for inflation—so most of the exponential rise in the two curves is simply the purchasing power of the dollar declining over time. Second, he doesn’t account for GDP growth, which is most of what’s left after you account for inflation. He has two nonstationary time-series with obvious exponential trends and doesn’t even formally correlate them, let alone actually perform the proper econometrics to show that they are cointegrated. I actually think they probably are cointegrated, and that a large portion of national debt is driven by military spending, but Graeber’s graph doesn’t even begin to make that argument. You could just as well graph the number of murders and the number of cheesecakes sold, each on an annual basis; both of them would rise exponentially with population, thus proving that cheesecakes cause murder (or murders cause cheesecakes?).

And then where Graeber really loses me is when he develops his theory of how modern capitalism and the monetary and debt system that go with it are fundamentally corrupt to the core and must be abolished and replaced with something totally new. First of all, he never tells us what that new thing is supposed to be. You’d think in 400 pages he could at least give us some idea, but no; nothing. He apparently wants us to do “not capitalism”, which is an infinite space of possible systems, some of which might well be better, but none of which can actually be implemented without more specific ideas. Many have declared that Occupy has failed—I am convinced that those who say this appreciate neither how long it takes social movements to make change, nor how effective Occupy has already been at changing our discourse, so that Capital in the Twenty-First Century can be a bestseller and the President of the United States can mention income inequality and economic mobility in his speeches—but insofar as Occupy has failed to achieve its goals, it seems to me that this is because it was never clear just what Occupy’s goals were to begin with. Now that I’ve read Graeber’s work, I understand why: He wanted it that way. He didn’t want to go through the hard work (which is also risky: you could be wrong) of actually specifying what this new economic system would look like; instead he’d prefer to find flaws in the current system and then wait for someone else to figure out how to fix them. That has always been the easy part; any human system comes with flaws. The hard part is actually coming up with a better system—and Graeber doesn’t seem willing to even try.

I don’t know exactly how accurate Graeber’s historical account is, but it seems to check out, and even make sense of some things that were otherwise baffling about the sketchy account of the past I had previously learned. Why were African tribes so willing to sell their people into slavery? Well, because they didn’t think of it as their people—they were selling captives from other tribes taken in war, which is something they had done since time immemorial in the form of slaves for slaves rather than slaves for goods. Indeed, it appears that trade itself emerged originally as what Graeber calls a “human economy”, in which human beings are literally traded as a fungible commodity—but always humans for humans. When money was introduced, people continued selling other people, but now it was for goods—and apparently most of the people sold were young women. So much of the Bible makes more sense that way: Why would Job be all right with getting new kids after losing his old ones? Kids are fungible! Why would people sell their daughters for goats? We always sell women! How quickly do we flirt with the unconscionable, when first we say that all is fungible.

One of Graeber’s central points is that debt came long before money—you owed people apples or hours of labor long before you ever paid anybody in gold. Money only emerged when debt became impossible to enforce, usually because trade was occurring between soldiers and the villages they had just conquered, so nobody was going to trust anyone to pay anyone back. Immediate spot trades were the only way to ensure that trades were fair in the absence of trust or community. In other words, the first use of gold as money was really using it as collateral. All of this makes a good deal of sense, and I’m willing to believe that’s where money originally came from.

But then Graeber tries to use this horrific and violent origin of money—in war, rape, and slavery, literally some of the worst things human beings have ever done to one another—as an argument for why money itself is somehow corrupt and capitalism with it. This is nothing short of a genetic fallacy: I could agree completely that money had this terrible origin, and yet still say that money is a good thing and worth preserving. (Indeed, I’m rather strongly inclined to say exactly that.) The fact that it was born of violence does not mean that it is violence; we too were born of violence, literally millions of years of rape and murder. It is astronomically unlikely that any one of us does not have a murderer somewhere in our ancestry. (Supposedly I’m descended from Julius Caesar, hence my last name Julius—not sure I really believe that—but if so, there you go, a murderer and tyrant.) Are we therefore all irredeemably corrupt? No. Where you come from does not decide what you are or where you are going.

In fact, I could even turn the argument around: Perhaps money was born of violence because it is the only alternative to violence; without money we’d still be trading our daughters away because we had no other way of trading. I don’t think I believe that either; but it should show you how fragile an argument from origin really is.

This is why the whole book gives this strange feeling of non sequitur; all this history is very interesting and enlightening, but what does it have to do with our modern problems? Oh. Nothing, that’s what. The connection you saw doesn’t make any sense, so maybe there’s just no connection at all. Well all right then. This was an interesting little experience.

This is a shame, because I do think there are important things to be said about the nature of money culturally, philosophically, morally—but Graeber never gets around to saying them, seeming to think that merely pointing out money’s violent origins is a sufficient indictment. It’s worth talking about the fact that money is something we made, something we can redistribute or unmake if we choose. I had such high expectations after I read that little interchange about the IMF: Yes! Finally, someone gets it! No, you don’t have to repay debts if that means millions of people will suffer! But then he never really goes back to that. The closest he veers toward an actual policy recommendation is at the very end of the book, a short section entitled “Perhaps the world really does owe you a living” in which he very briefly suggests—doesn’t even argue for, just suggests—that perhaps people do deserve a certain basic standard of living even if they aren’t working. He could have filled 50 pages arguing the ins and outs of a basic income with graphs and charts and citations of experimental data—but no, he just spends a few paragraphs proposing the idea and then ends the book. (I guess I’ll have to write that chapter myself; I think it would go well in The End of Economics, which I hope to get back to writing in a few months—while I also hope to finally publish my already-written book The Mathematics of Tears and Joy.)

If you want to learn about the history of money and debt over the last 5000 years, this is a good book to do so—and that is, after all, what the title said it would be. But if you’re looking for advice on how to improve our current economic system for the benefit of all humanity, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

And so in the grand economic tradition of reducing complex systems into a single numeric utility value, I rate Debt: The First 5000 Years a 3 out of 5.

Fear not the deficit

JDN 2456984 PST 12:20.

The deficit! It’s big and scary! And our national debt is rising by the second, says a “debt clock” that is literally just linearly extrapolating the trend. You don’t actually think that there are economists marking down every single dollar the government spends and uploading it immediately, do you? We’ve got better things to do. Conservatives will froth at the mouth over how Obama is the “biggest government spender in world history“, which is true if you just look at the dollar amounts, but of course it is; Obama is the president of the richest country in world history. If the government continues to tax at the same rate and spend what it taxes, government spending will be a constant proportion of GDP (which isn’t quite true, but it’s pretty close; there are ups and downs but for the last 40 years or so federal spending is generally in the range 30% to 35% of GDP), and the GDP of the United States is huge, and far beyond that of any other nation not only today, but ever. This is particularly true if you use nominal dollars, but it’s even true if you use inflation-adjusted real GDP. No other nation even gets close to US GDP, which is about to reach $17 trillion a year (unless you count the whole European Union as a nation, in which case it’s a dead heat).

China recently passed us if you use purchasing-power-parity, but that really doesn’t mean much, because purchasing-power-parity, or PPP, is a measure of standard of living, not a measure of a nation’s total economic power. If you want to know how well people in a country live, you use GDP per capita (that is, per person) PPP. But if you want to know a country’s capacity to influence the world economy, what matters is so-called real GDP, which is adjusted for inflation and international exchange rates. The difference is that PPP will tell you how many apples a person can buy, but real GDP will tell you how many aircraft carriers a government can build. The US is still doing quite well in that department, thank you; we have 10 of the world’s 20 active aircraft carriers, which is to say as many as everyone else combined. The US has 4% of the world’s population and 24% of the world’s economic output.

In particular, GDP in the US has been growing rather steadily since the Great Recession, and we are now almost recovered from the Second Depression and back to our equilibrium level of unemployment and economic growth. As the economy grows, government spending grows alongside it. Obama has actually presided over a decrease in the proportion of government spending relative to GDP, largely because of all this political pressure to reduce the deficit and stop the growth of the national debt. Under Obama the deficit has dropped dramatically.

But what is the deficit, anyway? And how can the deficit be decreasing if the debt clock keeps ticking up?

The government deficit is simply the difference between total government spending and total government revenue. If the government spends $3.90 trillion and takes in $3.30 trillion, the deficit is going to be $0.60 trillion, or $600 billion. In the rare case that you take in more than you spend, the deficit would be negative; we call that a surplus instead. (This almost never happens.)

Because of the way the US government is financed, the deficit corresponds directly to the national debt, which is the sum of all outstanding loans to the government. Every time the government spends more than it takes in, it makes up the difference by taking out a loan, in the form of a Treasury bond. As long as the deficit is larger than zero, the debt will increase. Think of the debt as where you are, and the deficit as how fast you’re going; you can be slowing down, but you’ll continue to move forward as long as you have some forward momentum.

Who is giving us these loans? You can look at the distribution of bondholders here. About a third of the debt is owned by the federal government itself, which makes it a very bizarre notion of “debt” indeed. Of the rest, 21% is owned by states or the Federal Reserve, so that’s also a pretty weird kind of debt. Only 55% of the total debt is owned by the public, and of those 39% are people and corporations within the United States. That means that only 33% of the national debt is actually owned by foreign people, corporations, or governments. What we actually owe to China is about $1.4 trillion. That’s a lot of money (it’s literally enough to make an endowment that would end world hunger forever), but our total debt is almost $18 trillion, so that’s only 8%.

When most people see these huge figures they panic: “Oh my god, we owe $18 trillion! How will we ever repay that!” Well, first of all, our GDP is $17 trillion, so we only owe a little over one year of income. (I wish I only owed one year of income in student loans….)

But in fact we don’t really owe it at all, and we don’t need to ever repay it. Chop off everything that’s owned by US government institutions (including the Federal Reserve, which is only “quasi-governmental”), and the figure drops down to $9.9 trillion. If by we you mean American individuals and corporations, then obviously we don’t owe back the debt that’s owned by ourselves, so take that off; now you’re looking at $6 trillion. That’s only about 4 months of total US economic output, or less than two years of government revenue.

And it gets better! The government doesn’t need to somehow come up with that money; they don’t even have to raise it in taxes. They can print that money, because the US government has a sovereign currency and the authority to print as much as we want. Really, we have the sovereign currency, because the US dollar is the international reserve currency, the currency that other nations hold in order to make exchanges in foreign markets. Other countries buy our money because it’s a better store of value than their own. Much better, in fact; the US has the most stable inflation rate in the world, and has literally never undergone hyperinflation. Better yet, the last time we had prolonged deflation was the Great Depression. This system is self-perpetuating, because being the international reserve currency also stabilizes the value of your money.

This is why it’s so aggravating to me when people say things like “the government can’t afford that” or “the government is broke” or “that money needs to come from somewhere”. No, the government can’t be broke! No, the money doesn’t have to come from somewhere! The US government is the somewhere from which the world’s money comes. If there is one institution in the world that can never, ever be broke, it is the US government. This gives our government an incredible amount of power—combine that with our aforementioned enormous GDP and fleet of aircraft carriers, and you begin to see why the US is considered a global hegemon.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting we eliminate all taxes and just start printing money to pay for everything. Taxes are useful, and we should continue to have them—ideally we would make them more progressive than they presently are. But it’s important to understand why taxes are useful; it’s really not that they are “paying for” government services. It’s actually more that they are controlling the money supply. The government creates money by spending, then removes money by taxing; in this way we maintain a stable growth of the money supply that allows us to keep the economy running smoothly and maintain inflation at a comfortable level. Taxes also allow the government to redistribute income from those who have it and save it to those who need it and will spend it—which is all the more reason for them to be progressive. But in theory we could eliminate all taxes without eliminating government services; it’s just that this would cause a surge in inflation. It’s a bad idea, but by no means impossible.

When we have a deficit, the national debt increases. This is not a bad thing. This is a fundamental misconception that I hope to disabuse you of: Government debt is not like household debt or corporate debt. When people say things like “we need to stop spending outside our means” or “we shouldn’t put wars on the credit card”, they are displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of what government debt is. The government simply does not operate under the same kind of credit constraints as you and I.

First, the government controls its own interest rates, and they are always very low—typically the lowest in the entire economy. That already gives it a lot more power over its debt than you or I have over our own.

Second, the government has no reason to default, because they can always print more money. That’s probably why bondholders tolerate the fact that the government sets its own interest rates; sure, it only pays 0.5%, but it definitely pays that 0.5%.

Third, government debt plays a role in the functioning of global markets; one of the reasons why China is buying up so much of our debt is so that they can keep the dollar high in value and thus maintain their trade surplus. (This is why whenever someone says something like, “The government needs to stop going further into debt, just like how I tightened my belt and paid off my mortgage!” I generally reply, “So when was the last time someone bought your debt in order to prop up your currency?”) This is also why we can’t get rid of our trade deficit and maintain a “strong dollar” at the same time; anyone who wants to do that may feel patriotic, but they are literally talking nonsense. The stronger the dollar, the higher the trade deficit.

Fourth, as I already hinted at above, the government doesn’t actually need debt at all. Government debt, like taxation, is not actually a source of funding; it is a tool of monetary policy. (If you’re going to quote one sentence from this post, it should be the previous; that basically sums up what I’m saying.) Even without raising taxes or cutting spending, the government could choose not to issue bonds, and instead print cash. You could make a sophisticated economic argument for how this is really somehow “issuing debt with indefinite maturity at 0% interest”; okay, fine. But it’s not what most people think of when they think of debt. (In fact, sophisticated economic arguments can go quite the opposite way: there’s a professor at Harvard I may end up working with—if I get into Harvard for my PhD of course—who argues that the federal debt and deficit are literally meaningless because they can be set arbitrarily by policy. I think he goes too far, but I see his point.) This is why many economists were suggesting that in order to get around ridiculous debt-ceiling intransigence Obama could simply Mint the Coin.

Government bonds aren’t really for the benefit of the government, they’re for the benefit of society. They allow the government to ensure that there is always a perfectly safe investment that people can buy into which will anchor interest rates for the rest of the economy. If we ever did actually pay off all the Treasury bonds, the consequences could be disastrous.

Fifth, the government does not have a credit limit; they can always issue more debt (unless Congress is filled with idiots who won’t raise the debt ceiling!). The US government is the closest example in the world to what neoclassical economists call a perfect credit market. A perfect credit market is like an ideal rational agent; these sort of things only exist in an imaginary world of infinite identical psychopaths. A perfect credit market would have perfect information, zero transaction cost, zero default risk, and an unlimited quantity of debt; with no effort at all you could take out as much debt as you want and everyone would know that you are always guaranteed to pay it back. This is in most cases an utterly absurd notion—but in the case of the US government it’s actually pretty close.

Okay, now that I’ve deluged you with reasons why the national debt is fundamentally different from a household mortgage or corporate bond, let’s get back to talking about the deficit. As I mentioned earlier, the deficit is almost always positive; the government is almost always spending more money than it takes in. Most people think that is a bad thing; it is not.

It would be bad for a corporation to always run a deficit, because then it would never make a profit. But the government is not a for-profit corporation. It would be bad for an individual to always run a deficit, because eventually they would go bankrupt. But the government is not an individual.

In fact, the government running a deficit is necessary for both corporations to make profits and individuals to gain net wealth! The government is the reason why our monetary system is nonzero-sum.

This is actually so easy to see that most people who learn about it react with shock, assuming that it can’t be right. There can’t be some simple and uncontroversial equation that shows that government deficits are necessary for profits and savings. Actually, there is; and the fact that we don’t talk about this more should tell you something about the level of sophistication in our economic discourse.

Individuals do work, get paid wages W. (This also includes salaries and bonuses; it’s all forms of labor income.) They also get paid by government spending, G, and pay taxes, T. Let’s pretend that all taxing and spending goes to people and not corporations. This is pretty close to true, especially since corporations as big as Boeing frequently pay nothing in taxes. Corporate subsidies, while ridiculous, are also a small portion of spending—no credible estimate is above $300 billion a year, or less than 10% of the budget. (Without that assumption the equation has a couple more terms, but the basic argument doesn’t change.) People use their money to buy consumption goods, C. What they don’t spend they save, S.

S = (W + G – T) – C

I’m going to rearrange this for reasons that will soon become clear:

S = (W – C) + (G – T)

I’ll also subtract investment I from both sides, again for reasons that will become clear:

S – I = (W – C – I) + (G – T)

Corporations hire workers and pay them W. They make consumption goods which are then sold for C. They also sell to foreign companies and buy from foreign companies, exporting X and importing M. Since we have a trade deficit, this means that X < M. Finally, they receive investment I that comes in the form of banks creating money through loans (yes, banks can create money). Most of our monetary policy is in the form of trying to get banks to create more money by changing interest rates. Only when desperate do we actually create the money directly (I’m not sure why we do it this way). In any case, this yields a total net profit P.

P = C + I – W + (X – M)

Now, if the economy is functioning well, we want profits and savings to both be positive—both people and corporations will have more money on average next year then they had this year. This means that S > 0 and P > 0. We also don’t want the banks loaning out more money than people save—otherwise people go ever further into debt—so we actually want S > I, or S – I > 0. If S – I > 0, people are paying down their debts and gaining net wealth. If S – I < 0, people are going further into debt and losing net wealth. In a well-functioning economy we want people to be gaining net wealth.

In order to have P > 0, because X – M < 0 we need to have C + I > W. People have to spend more on consumption and investment than they are paid in wages—have to, absolutely have to, as a mathematical law—in order for corporations to make a profit.

But then if C + I > W, W – C – I < 0, which means that the first term of the savings equation is negative. In order for savings to be positive, it must be—again as a mathematical law—that G – T > 0, which means that government spending exceeds taxes. In order for both corporations to profit and individuals to save at the same time, the government must run a deficit.

There is one other way, actually, and that’s for X – M to be positive, meaning you run a trade surplus. But right now we don’t, and moreover, the world as a whole necessarily cannot. For the world as a whole, X = M. This will remain true at least until we colonize other planets. This means that in order for both corporate profits and individual savings to be positive worldwide, overall governments worldwide must spend more than they take in. It has to be that way, otherwise the equations simply don’t balance.

You can also look at it another way by adding the equations for S – I and P:

S – I + P = (G – T) + (X – M)

Finally, you can also derive this a third way. This is your total GDP which we usually call Y (“yield”, I think?); it’s equal to consumption plus investment plus government spending, plus net exports:

Y = C + I + G + (X – M)

It’s also equal to consumption plus profit plus saving plus taxes:

Y = C + P + S + T

So those two things must be the same:

C + S + T + P = C + I + G + (X – M)

Canceling and rearranging we get:

(S – I) + P = (G – T) + (X – M)

The sum of saving minus investment (which we can sort of think of as “net saving”) plus profit is equal to the sum of the government deficit and the trade surplus. (Usually you don’t see P in this sectoral balances equation because no distinction is made between consumers and corporations and P is absorbed into S.)

From the profit equation:

W = C + I + (X – M) – P

Put that back into our GDP equation:

Y = W + P + G

GDP is wages plus profits plus government spending.

That’s a lot of equations; simple equations, but yes, equations. Lots of people are scared by equations. So here, let me try to boil it down to a verbal argument. When people save and corporations make profits, money gets taken out of circulation. If no new money is added, the money supply will decrease as a result; this shrinks the economy (mathematically it must absolutely shrink it in nominal terms; theoretically it could cause deflation and not reduce real output, but in practice real output always goes down because deflation causes its own set of problems). New money can be created by banks, but the mechanism of creation requires that people go further into debt. This is unstable, and eventually people can’t borrow anymore and the whole financial system comes crashing down. The better way, then, is for the government to create new money. Yes, as we currently do things, this means the government will go further into debt; but that’s all right, because the government can continue to increase its debt indefinitely without having to worry about hitting a ceiling and making everything fall apart. We could also just print money instead, and in fact I think in many cases this is what we should do—but for whatever reason people always freak out when you suggest such a thing, invariably mentioning Zimbabwe. (And yes, Zimbabwe is in awful shape; but they didn’t just print money to cover a reasonable amount of deficit spending. They printed money to line their own pockets, and it was thousands of times more than what I’m suggesting. Also Zimbabwe has a much smaller economy; $1 trillion is 5% of US GDP, but it’s 8,000% of Zimbabwe’s. I’m suggesting we print maybe 4% of GDP; at the peak of the hyperinflation they printed something more like 100,000%.)

One last thing before I go. If investment suddenly drops, net saving will go up. If the government deficit and trade deficit remain constant, profits must go down. This drives firms into bankruptcy, driving wages down as well. This makes GDP fall—and you get a recession. A similar effect would occur if consumption suddenly drops. In both cases people will be trying to increase their net wealth, but in fact they won’t be able to—this is what’s called the paradox of thrift. You actually want to increase the government deficit under these circumstances, because then you will both add to GDP directly and allow profits and wages to go back up and raise GDP even further. Because GDP has gone down, tax income will go down, so if you insist on balancing the budget, you’ll cut spending and only make things worse.

Raising the government deficit generally increases economic growth. From these simple equations it looks like you could raise GDP indefinitely, but these are nominal figures—actual dollar amounts—so after a certain point all you’d be doing is creating inflation. Where exactly that point is depends on how your economy is performing relative to its potential capacity. In a recession you are far below capacity, so that’s just the time to spend. You’d only want a budget surplus if you actually thought you were above long-run capacity, because you’re depleting natural resources or causing too much inflation or something like that. And indeed, we hardly ever see budget surpluses.

So that, my dear reader, is why we don’t need to fear the deficit. Government debt is nothing like other forms of debt; profits and savings depend upon the government spending more than it takes in; deficits are highly beneficial during recessions; and the US government is actually in a unique position to never worry about defaulting on its debt.

Why immigration is good

JDN 2456977 PST 12:31.

The big topic in policy news today is immigration. After years of getting nothing done on the issue, Obama has finally decided to bypass Congress and reform our immigration system by executive order. Republicans are threatening to impeach him if he does. His decision to go forward without Congressional approval may have something to do with the fact that Republicans just took control of both houses of Congress. Naturally, Fox News is predicting economic disaster due to the expansion of the welfare state. (When is that not true?) A more legitimate critique comes from the New York Times, who point out how this sudden shift demonstrates a number of serious problems in our political system and how it is financed.

So let’s talk about immigration, and why it is almost always a good thing for a society and its economy. There are a couple of downsides, but they are far outweighed by the upsides.

I’ll start with the obvious: Immigration is good for the immigrants. That’s why they’re doing it. Uprooting yourself from your home and moving thousands of miles isn’t easy under the best circumstances (like I when I moved from Michigan to California for grad school); now imagine doing it when you are in crushing poverty and you have to learn a whole new language and culture once you arrive. People are only willing to do this when the stakes are high. The most extreme example is of course the children refugees from Latin America, who are finally getting some of the asylum they so greatly deserve, but even the “ordinary” immigrants coming from Mexico are leaving a society racked with poverty, endemic with corruption, and bathed in violence—most recently erupting in riots that have set fire to government buildings. These people are desperate; they are crossing our border despite the fences and guns because they feel they have no other choice. As a fundamental question of human rights, it is not clear to me that we even have the right to turn these people away. Forget the effect on our economy; forget the rate of assimilation; what right do we have to say to these people that their suffering should go on because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line?

There are wealthier immigrants—many of them here, in fact, for grad schoolwhose circumstances are not so desperate; but hardly anyone even considers turning them away, because we want their money and their skills in our society. Americans who fear brain drain have it all backwards; the United States is where the brains drain to. This trend may be reversing more recently as our right-wing economic policy pulls funding away from education and science, but it would likely only reach the point where we export as many intelligent people as we import; we’re not talking about creating a deficit here, only reducing our world-dominating surplus. And anyway I’m not so concerned about those people; yes, the world needs them, but they don’t need much help from the world.

My concern is for our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free. These are the people we are thinking about turning away—and these are the people who most desperately need us to take them in. That alone should be enough reason to open our borders, but apparently it isn’t for most people, so let’s talk about some of the ways that America stands to gain from such a decision.

First of all, immigration increases economic growth. Immigrants don’t just take in money; they also spend it back out, which further increases output and creates jobs. Immigrants are more likely than native citizens to be entrepreneurs, perhaps because taking the chance to start a business isn’t so scary after you’ve already taken the chance to travel thousands of miles to a new country. Our farming system is highly dependent upon cheap immigrant labor (that’s a little disturbing, but if as far as the US economy, we get cheap food by hiring immigrants on farms). On average, immigrants are younger than our current population, so they are more likely to work and less likely to retire, which has helped save the US from the economic malaise that afflicts nations like Japan where the aging population is straining the retirement system. More open immigration wouldn’t just increase the number of immigrants coming here to do these things; it would also make the immigrants who are already here more productive by opening up opportunities for education and entrepreneurship. Immigration could speed the recovery from the Second Depression and maybe even revitalize our dying Rust Belt cities.

Now, what about the downsides? By increasing the supply of labor faster than they increase the demand for labor, immigrants could reduce wages. There is some evidence that immigrants reduce wages, particularly for low-skill workers. This effect is rather small, however; in many studies it’s not even statistically significant (PDF link). A 10% increase in low-skill immigrants leads to about a 3% decrease in low-skill wages (PDF link). The total economy grows, but wages decrease at the bottom, so there is a net redistribution of wealth upward.

Immigration is one of the ways that globalization increases within-nation inequality even as it decreases between-nation inequality; you move the poor people to rich countries, and they become less poor than they were, but still poorer than most of the people in those rich countries, which increases the inequality there. On average the world becomes better off, but it can seem bad for the rich countries, especially the people in rich countries who were already relatively poor. Because they distribute wealth by birthright, national borders actually create something analogous to the privilege of feudal lords, albeit to a much larger segment of the population. (Much larger: Here’s a right-wing site trying to argue that the median American is in the top 1% of income by world standards; neat trick, because Americans comprise 4% of the world population—so our top half makes up 2% of the world’s population by themselves. Yet somehow apparently that 2% of the population is the top 1%? Also, the US isn’t the only rich country; have you heard of, say, Europe?)

There’s also a lot of variation in the literature as to the size—or even direction—of the effect of immigration on low-skill wages. But since the theory makes sense and the preponderance of the evidence is toward a moderate reduction in wages for low-skill native workers, let’s assume that this is indeed the case.

First of all I have to go back to my original point: These immigrants are getting higher wages than they would have in the countries they left. (That part is usually even true of the high-skill immigrants.) So if you’re worried about low wages for low-skill workers, why are you only worried about that for workers who were born on this side of the fence? There’s something deeply nationalistic—if not outright racist—inherent in the complaint that Americans will have lower pay or lose their jobs when Mexicans come here. Don’t Mexicans also deserve jobs and higher pay?

Aside from that, do we really want to preserve higher wages at the cost of economic efficiency? Are high wages an end in themselves? It seems to me that what we’re really concerned about is welfare—we want the people of our society to live better lives. High wages are one way to do that, but not the only way; a basic income could reverse that upward redistribution of wealth, taking the economic benefits of the immigration that normally accrue toward the top and giving them to the bottom. As I already talked about in an earlier post, a basic income is a lot more efficient than trying to mess around with wages. Markets are very powerful; we shouldn’t always accept what they do, but we should also be careful when we interfere with them. If the market is trying to drive certain wages down, that means that there is more desire to do that kind of work then there is work of that kind that needs done. The wage change creates a market incentive for people to switch to more productive kinds of work. We should also be working to create opportunities to make that switch—funding free education, for instance—because an incentive without an opportunity is a bit like pointing a gun at someone’s head and ordering them to give birth to a unicorn.

So on the one hand we have the increase in local inequality and the potential reduction in low-skill wages; those are basically the only downsides. On the other hand, we have increases in short-term and long-term economic growth, lower global inequality, more spending, more jobs, a younger population with less strain on the retirement system, more entrepreneurship, and above all, the enormous lifelong benefits to the immigrants themselves that motivated them to move in the first place. It seems pretty obvious to me: we can enact policies to reduce the downsides, but above all we must open our borders.

What just happened in that election?

JDN 2456970 PST 11:12.

My head is still spinning from the election results on Tuesday. Republicans gained a net of 12 seats to secure their majority in the House. Even worse, Republicans gained at least 7 seats in the Senate (note that each Senate seat should count for 4.35 House seats because there are 100 Senators and 435 Representatives) and may gain two more depending on how runoffs go. This gives them a majority in both houses of Congress. So people like Republicans then? Maybe they’re fed up with Obama and dissatisfied with his handling of the economy (even though it has actually been spectacular given what he had to work with).
But then when we look at actual ballot proposals, the ones that passed were mostly liberal issues. California passed proposition 47, which will reduce sentences for minor drug and theft crimes and substantially reduce our incidence of incarceration. (There’s no sign of releasing current prisoners, unfortunately; but at least we won’t be adding as many new ones.) Marijuana was legalized—fully legalized, for all purposes—in Alaska, Oregon, and DC, further reducing incarceration. At last, the US may finally stop being the incarceration capitol of the world! We currently hold the title in both per-capita and total incarceration, so there can be no dispute. (Technically the Seychelles has a higher per-capita rate, but come on, they don’t count as a real country; they have a population smaller than Ann Arbor—or for that matter the annual throughput of Riker’s Island.)

The proposals to allow wolf hunting in Michigan failed, for which many wolves would thank you if they could. Minimum wages were raised in five states, four of which are Republican-leaning states. The most extreme minimum wage hike was in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is going to be raised as high as $18 over the next four years. So people basically agree with Democrats on policy, but decided to hand the Senate over to Republicans.

I think the best explanation for what happened is the voting demographics. When we have a Senate election, we aren’t sampling randomly from the American population; we’re pulling from specific states, and specific populations within those states. Geography played a huge role in these election results. So did age; the voting population was much older on average than the general population, because most young people simply didn’t vote. I know some of these young people, who tell me things like “I’m not voting because I won’t be part of that system!” Apparently their level of understanding of social change approaches that of the Lonely Island song “I Threw it on the Ground”. Not voting isn’t rebellion, it’s surrender. (I’m not sure who said that first, but it’s clearly right.) Rebellion would be voting for a radical third-party candidate, or running as one yourself. Rebellion would be leading rallies to gather support—that is, votes—for that candidate. Alternatively, you could say that rebellion is too risky and simply aim for reform, in which case you’d vote for Democrats as I did.

Your failure to vote did not help change that system. On the contrary, it was because of your surrender that we got two houses of Congress controlled by Republicans who have veered so far to the right they are bordering on fascism and feudalism. It is strange living in a society where the “mainstream” has become so extremist. You end up feeling like a radical far-left Marxist when in fact you agree—as I do—with the core policies of FDR or even Eisenhower. You have been told that the right is capitalism and the left is socialism; this is wrong. The left is capitalism; the right is feudalism. When I tell you I want a basic income funded by a progressive income tax, I am agreeing with Milton Friedman.

This must be how it feels to be a secularist in an Islamist theocracy like Iran. Now that Colorado has elected a state legislator who is so extreme that he literally has performed exorcisms to make people not gay or transgender (his name is apparently Gordon Klingenschmitt), I fear we’re dangerously on the verge of a theocracy of our own.

Of course, I shouldn’t just blame the people who didn’t vote; I should also blame the people who did vote, and voted for candidates who are completely insane. Even though it’s just a state legislature, tens of thousands of people voted for that guy in Colorado; tens of thousands of Americans were okay with the fact that he thinks gay and transgender people have demons inside us that need to be removed by exorcism. Even in Iran theocracy is astonishingly popular. People are voting for these candidates, and we must find out why and change their minds. We must show them that the people they are voting for are not going to make good decisions that benefit America, they are going to make selfish decisions that benefit themselves or their corporate cronies, or even just outright bad decisions that hurt everyone. As an example of the latter (which is arguably worse), there is literally no benefit to discrimination against women or racial minorities or LGBT people. It’s just absolute pure deadweight loss that causes massive harm without any benefit at all. It’s deeply, deeply irrational, and one of the central projects of cognitive economics must be figuring out what makes people discriminate and figuring out how to make them stop.

To be fair, some of the candidates that were elected are not so extreme. Tom Cotton of Arkansas (whose name is almost offensively down-homey rural American; I don’t think I could name a character that in a novel without people thinking it was satire) supported the state minimum wage increase and is sponsoring a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, which is actually pretty reasonable, rather than at conception, which is absurd.

Thom Tillis of North Carolina is your standard old rich White male corporate stooge, but I don’t see anything in his platform that is particularly terrifying. David Perdue of Georgia is the same; he’s one of those business owners who thinks he knows how to run the economy because he can own a business while it makes money. (Even if he did have something to do with the profitability of the business—which is not entirely clear—that’s still like a fighter pilot saying he’s a great aerospace engineer.) Cory Gardner is similar (not old, but rich White male corporate stooge), but he’s scary simply because he came from the Colorado state legislature, where they just installed that exorcist guy.

Thad Cochran of Mississippi was re-elected, so he was already there; he generally votes along whatever lines the Republican leadership asks him to, so he is not so much a villain as a henchman. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia also seems to basically vote whatever the party says.

Joni Ernst of Iowa is an interesting character; despite being a woman, she basically agrees with all the standard Republican positions, including those that are obviously oppressive of women. She voted for an abortion ban at conception, which is totally different from what Cotton wants. She even takes the bizarre confederalist view of Paul Ryan that a federal minimum wage is “big government” but a state minimum wage is just fine. The one exception is that she supports reform of sexual harassment policy in the military, probably because she experienced it herself.

But I’m supposed to be an economist, so what do I think is going to happen to the economy? (Of course, don’t forget, the economy is made of people. One of the best things that can ever happen to an economy is the empowerment of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people, all of which are now in jeopardy under a Republican Congress.)

The best-case scenario is “not much”; the obstructionism continues, and despite an utterly useless government the market repairs itself as it will always do eventually. Job growth will continue at its slow but steady pace, GDP will get back to potential trend. Inequality will continue to increase as it has been doing for about 30 years now. In a couple years there will be another election and hopefully Republicans will lose their majority.

The worst-case scenario is “Republicans get what they want”. The budget will finally be balanced—by cutting education, infrastructure, and social services. Then they’ll unbalance it again by cutting taxes on the rich and starting a couple more wars, because that kind of government spending doesn’t count. (They are weaponized Keynesians all.) They’ll restrict immigration even though immigration is what the First World needs right now (not to mention the fact that the people coming here need it even more). They’ll impose draconian regulations on abortion, they’ll stop or reverse the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage.

Democrats must not cave in to demands for “compromise” and “bipartisanship”. If the Republicans truly believed in those things, they wouldn’t have cost the economy $24 billion and downgraded the credit rating of the US government by their ridiculous ploy to shut down the government. They wouldn’t have refused to deal until the sequester forced nonsensical budget cuts. They wouldn’t make it a central part of their platform to undermine or repeal the universal healthcare system that they invented just so that Democrats can’t take credit for it. They have become so committed to winning political arguments at any cost that they are willing to do real harm to America and its people in order to do it. They are overcome by the tribal paradigm, and we all suffer for it.

No, the Republicans in Congress today are like 3-year-olds who throw a tantrum when they don’t get everything exactly their way. You can’t negotiate with these people, you can’t compromise with them. I wish you could, I really do. I’ve heard of days long gone when Congress actually accomplished things, but I have only vague recollections, for I was young in the Clinton era. (I do remember times under Bush II when Congress did things, but they were mostly bad things.) Maybe if we’re firm enough or persuasive enough some of them will even come around. But the worst thing Democrats could do right now is start caving to Republican demands thinking that it will restore unity to our government—because that unity would come only at the price of destroying people’s lives.

Unfortunately I fear that Democrats will appease Republicans in this way, because they’ve been doing that so far. In the campaign, hardly any of the Democrats mentioned Obama’s astonishing economic record or the numerous benefits of Obamacare—which by the way is quite popular among its users, at least more so than getting rid of it entirely (most people want to fix it, not eliminate it). Most of the Democratic candidates barely ran a campaign deserving of the name.

To be clear: Do not succumb to the tribal paradigm yourself. Do not think that everyone who votes Republican is a bad person—the vast majority are good people who were misled. Do not even assume that every Republican politician is evil; a few obviously are (see also Dick Cheney), but most are actually not so much evil as blinded by the ideology of their tribe. I believe that Paul Ryan and Rand Paul think that what they do is in the best interests of America; the problem is not their intentions but their results and their unwillingness to learn from those results. We do need to find ways to overcome partisanship and restore unity and compromise—but we must not simply bow to their demands in order to do that.

Democrats: Do not give in. Stand up for your principles. Every time you give in to their obstructionism, you are incentivizing that obstructionism. And maybe next election you could actually talk about the good things your party does for people—or the bad things their party does—instead of running away from your own party and apologizing for everything?

Is marginal productivity fair?

JDN 2456963 PDT 11:11.

The standard economic equilibrium that is the goal of any neoclassical analysis is based on margins, rather than totals; what matters is not how much you have in all, but how much you get from each new one. This may be easier to understand with specific examples: The price of a product isn’t set by the total utility that you get from using that product; it’s set by the marginal utility that you get from each new unit. The wage of a worker isn’t set by their total value to the company; it’s set by the marginal value they provide with each additional hour of work. Formally, it’s not the value of the function f(x), it’s the derivative of the function, f'(x). (If you don’t know calculus, don’t worry about that last part; it isn’t that important to understand the basic concept.)

This is the standard modern explanation for Adam Smith’s “diamond-water paradox“: Why are diamonds so much more expensive than water, even though water is much more useful? Well, we have plenty of water, so the marginal utility of water isn’t very high; what are you really going to do with that extra liter? But we don’t have a lot of diamonds, so even though diamonds in general aren’t that useful, getting an extra diamond has a lot of benefit. (The units are a bit weird, as George Stigler once used to argue that Smith’s paradox is “meaningless”; but that’s silly. Let’s fix the units at “per kilogram”; a kilogram of diamonds is far, far more expensive than a kilogram of water.)

This explanation is obviously totally wrong, by the way; that’s not why diamonds are expensive. The marginal-utility argument makes sense for cars (or at least ordinary Fords and Toyotas, for reasons you’ll see in a minute), but it doesn’t explain diamonds. Diamonds are expensive for two reasons: First, the absolutely insane monopoly power of the De Beers cartel; as you might imagine, water would be really expensive too if it were also controlled by a single cartel with the power to fix prices and crush competitors. (For awhile De Beers executives had a standing warrant for their arrest in the United States; recently they pled guilty and paid fines—because, as we all know, rich people never go to prison.) And you can clearly see how diamond prices plummeted when the cartel was weakened in the 1980s. But Smith was writing long before DeBeers, and even now that De Beers only controls 40% of the market so we have an oligopoly instead of a monopoly (it’s a step in the right direction I guess), diamonds are still far more expensive than water. The real reason why diamonds are expensive is that diamonds are a Veblen good; you don’t buy diamonds because you actually want to use diamonds (maybe once in awhile, if you want to make a diamond saw or something). You buy diamonds in order to show off how rich you are. And if your goal is to show how rich you are, higher prices are good; you want it to be really expensive, you’re more likely to buy it if it’s really expensive. That’s why the marginal utility argument doesn’t work for Porsches and Ferraris; they’re Veblen goods too. If the price of a Ferrari suddenly dropped to $10,000, people would realize pretty quickly that they are hard to maintain, have very poor suspensions, and get awful gas mileage. It’s not like you can actually drive at 150 mph without getting some serious speeding tickets. (I guess they look nice?) But if the price of a Prius dropped to $10,000, everyone would buy one. For some people diamonds are also a speculation good; they hope to buy them at one price and sell them at a higher price. This is also how most trading in the stock market works, which is why I’m dubious of how well the stock market actually supports real investment. When we’re talking about Veblen goods and speculation goods, the sky is the limit; any price that someone can pay is a price they might sell at.

But all of that is a bit tangential. It’s worth thinking about all the ways that neoclassical theory doesn’t comport with reality, all the cases where price and marginal value become unhinged. But for today I’m going to give the neoclassicists the benefit of the doubt: Suppose it were true. Suppose that markets really were perfectly efficient and everything were priced at its marginal value. Would that even be a good thing?

I tend to focus most of my arguments on why a given part of our economic system deviates from optimal efficiency, because once you can convince economists of that they are immediately willing to try to fix it. But what if we had optimal efficiency? Most economists would say that we’re done, we’ve succeeded, everything is good now. (I am suddenly reminded of the Lego song, “Everything is Awesome.”) This notion is dangerously wrong.

A system could be perfectly efficient and still be horrifically unfair. This is particularly important when we’re talking about labor markets. A diamond or a bottle of water doesn’t have feelings; it doesn’t care what price you sell it at. More importantly it doesn’t have rights. People have feelings; people have rights. (And once again I’m back to Citizens United; a rat is more of a person than any corporation. We should stop calling them “rats” and “fat cats”, for this is an insult to the rodent and feline communities. No, only a human psychopath could ever be quite so corrupt.)

Of course when you sell a product, the person selling it cares how much you pay, but that will either trace back to someone’s labor—and labor markets are still the issue—or it won’t, in which case as far as I’m concerned it really doesn’t matter. If you make money simply by owning things, our society is giving you an enormous gift simply by allowing that capital income to exist; press the issue much more and we’d be well within our rights to confiscate every dime. Unless and until capital ownership is shared across the entire population and we can use it to create a post-scarcity society, capital income will be a necessary evil at best.

So let’s talk about labor markets. If you’ve taken any economics, you have probably seen a great many diagrams like this:


The red line is labor supply, the blue line is labor demand. At the intersection is our glorious efficient market equilibrium, in this case at 7.5 hours of work per day (the x-axis) and $12.50 an hour (the y-axis). The green line is the wage, $12.50 per hour. But let’s stop and think for a moment about what this diagram really means.

What decides that red labor supply line? Do people just arbitrarily decide that they’re going to work 4 hours a day if they get paid $9 an hour, but 8 hours a day if they get paid $13 an hour? No, this line is meant to represent the marginal real cost of working. It’s the monetized value of your work effort and the opportunity cost of what else you could have been doing with your time. It rises because the more hours you work, the more stress it causes you and the more of your life it takes up. Working 4 hours a day, you probably had that time available anyway. Working 8 hours a day, you can fit it in. Working 12 hours a day, now you have no leisure at all. Working 16 hours a day, now you’re having trouble fitting in basic needs like food and sleep. Working 20 hours a day, you eat at work, you don’t get enough sleep, and you’re going to burn yourself out in no time. Why is it a straight line? Because we assume linear relationships to make the math easier. (No, really; that is literally the only reason. We call them “supply and demand curves” but almost always draw and calculate them as straight lines.)

Now let’s consider the blue labor demand line. Is this how much the “job creators” see fit to bestow upon you? No, it’s the marginal value of productivity. The first hour you work each day, you are focused and comfortable, and you can produce a lot of output. The second hour you’re just a little bit fatigued, so you can produce a bit less. By the time you get to hour 8, you’re exhausted, and producing noticeably less output. And if they pushed you past 16 hours, you’d barely produce anything at all. They multiply the amount of products you produce by the price at which they can sell those products, and that’s their demand for your labor. And once again we assume it’s a straight line just to make the math easier.

From this diagram you can calculate what is called employer surplus and worker surplus. Employer surplus is basically the same thing as profit. (It’s not exactly the same for some wonky technical reasons, but for our purposes they may as well be the same.) Worker surplus is a subtler concept; it’s the amount of money you receive minus the monetized value of your cost of working. So if that first hour of work was really easy and you were willing to do it for anything over $5, we take that $5 as your monetized cost of working (your “marginal willingness-to-accept“). Then if you are being paid $12.50 an hour, we infer that you must have gained $7.50 worth of utility from that exchange. (“$7.50 of utility” is a very weird concept, for reasons I’ll get into more in a later post; but it is actually the standard means of estimating utility in neoclassical economics. That’s one of the things I hope to change, actually.)

When you add these up for all the hours worked, the result becomes an integral, which is a formal mathematical way of saying “the area between those two lines”. In this case they are triangles of equal size, so we can just use the old standby A = 1/2*b*h. The area of each triangle is 1/2*7.5*7.5 = $28.13. From each day you work, you make $28.13 in consumer surplus and your employer makes $28.13 in profit.

And that seems fair, doesn’t it? You split it right down the middle. Both of you are better off than you were, and the economic benefits are shared equally. If this were really how labor markets work, that seems like how things ought to be.

But nothing in the laws of economics says that the two areas need to be equal. We tend to draw them that way out of an aesthetic desire for symmetry. But in general they are not, and in some cases they can be vastly unequal.

This happens if we have wildly different elasticities, which is a formal term for the relative rates of change of two things. An elasticity of labor supply of 1 would mean that for a 1% increase in wage you’re willing to work 1% more hours, while an elasticity of 10 would mean that for a 1% increase in wage you’re willing to work 10% more hours. Elasticities can also be negative; a labor demand elasticity of -1 would mean that for a 1% increase in wage your employer is willing to hire you for 1% fewer hours. In the graph above, the elasticity of labor supply is exactly 1. The elasticity of labor demand varies along the curve, but at the equilibrium it is about -1.6. The fact that the profits are shared equally is related to the fact that these two elasticities are close in magnitude but opposite in sign.

But now consider this equilibrium, in which I’ve raised the labor elasticity to 10. Notice that the wage and number of hours haven’t change; it’s still 7.5 hours at $12.50 per hour. But now the profits are shared quite unequally indeed; while the employer still gets $28.13, the value for the worker is only 1/2*7.5*0.75 = $2.81. In real terms this means we’ve switched from a job that starts off easy but quickly gets harder to a job that is hard to start with but never gets much harder than that.


On the other hand what if the supply elasticity is only 0.1? Now the worker surplus isn’t even a triangle; it’s a trapezoid. The area of this trapezoid is 6*12.5+1/2*1.5*12.5 = $84.38. This job starts off easy and fun—so much so that you’d do it for free—but then after 6 hours a day it quickly becomes exhausting and you need to stop.


If we had to guess what these jobs are, my suggestion is that maybe the first one is a research assistant, the second one is a garbage collector, and the third one is a video game tester. And thus, even though they are paid about the same (I think that’s true in real life? They all make about $15 an hour or $30k a year), we all agree that the video game tester job is better than the research assistant job which is better than the garbage collector job—which is exactly what the worker surplus figures are saying.

What about the demand side? Here’s where it gets really unfair. Going back to our research assistant with a supply elasticity of 1, suppose they’re not really that good a researcher. Their output isn’t wrong, but it’s also not very interesting. They can do the basic statistics, but they aren’t very creative and they don’t have a deep intuition for the subject. This might produce a demand elasticity 10 times larger. The worker surplus remains the same, but the employer surplus is much lower. The triangle has an area 1/2*7.5*0.75 = $2.81.


Now suppose that they are the best research assistant ever; let’s say we have a young Einstein. Everything he touches turns to gold, but even Einstein needs his beauty sleep (he actually did sleep about 10 hours a day, which is something I’ve always been delighted to have in common with him), so the total number of work hours still caps out at 7.5. It is entirely possible for the wage equilibrium to be exactly the same as it was for the lousy researcher, making the graph look like this:


You can’t even see the top of the triangle on this scale; it’s literally off the chart. The worker had a lower bound at zero, but there’s no comparable upper bound. (I suppose you could argue the lower bound shouldn’t be there either, since there are kinds of work you’d be willing to do even if you had to pay to do them—like, well, testing video games.) The top of the triangle is actually at about $90, as it turns out, so the area of employer surplus is 1/2*(90-12.5)*7.5 = $290.63. For every day he works, the company gets almost $300, but Einstein himself only gets $28.13 after you include what it costs him to work. (His gross pay is just wage*hours of course, so that’s $93.75.) The total surplus produced is $318.76. Einstein himself only gets a measly 8.9% of that.

So here we have three research assistants, who have very different levels of productivity, getting the same pay. But isn’t pay supposed to reflect productivity? Sort of; it’s supposed to reflect marginal productivity. Because Einstein gets worn out and produces at the same level as the mediocre researcher after 7.5 hours of work, since that’s where the equilibrium is that’s what they both get paid.

Now maybe Einstein should hold back; he could exercise some monopolistic power over his amazing brain. By only offering to work 4 hours a day, he can force the company to pay him at his marginal productivity for 4 hours a day, which turns out to be $49 an hour. Now he makes a gross pay of $196, with a worker surplus of $171.


This diagram is a bit harder to read, so let me walk you through it. The light red and blue lines are the same as before. The darker blue line is the marginal revenue per hour for Einstein, once he factors in the fact that working more hours will mean accepting a lower wage. The optimum for him is when that marginal revenue curve crosses his marginal cost curve, which is the red supply curve. That decides how many hours he will work, namely 4. But that’s not the wage he gets; to find that, we move up vertically along the dark red line until we get the company’s demand curve. That tells us what wage the company is willing to pay for the level of marginal productivity Einstein has at 4 hours per day of work—which is the $49 wage he ends up making shown by the dark green line. The lighter lines show what happens if we have a competitive labor market, while the darker lines show what happens if Einstein exercises monopoly power.

The company still does pretty well on this deal; they now make an employer surplus of $82. Now, of the total $253 of economic surplus being made, Einstein takes 69%. It’s his brain, so him taking most of the benefit seems fair.

But you should notice something: This result is inefficient! There’s a whole triangle between 4 and 7.5 hours that nobody is getting; it’s called the deadweight loss. In this case it is $65.76, the difference between the total surplus in the efficient equilibrium and the inefficient equilibrium. In real terms, this means that research doesn’t get done because Einstein held back in order to demand a higher wage. That’s research that should be done—its benefit exceeds its cost—but nobody is doing it. Well now, maybe that doesn’t seem so fair after all. It seems selfish of him to not do research that needs done just so he can get paid more for what he does.

If Einstein has monopoly power, he gets a fair share but the market is inefficient. Removing Einstein’s monopoly power by some sort of regulation would bring us back to efficiency, but it would give most of his share to the company instead. Neither way seems right.

How do we solve this problem? I’m honestly not sure. First of all, we rarely know the actual supply and demand elasticities, and when we do it’s generally after painstaking statistical work to determine the aggregate elasticities, which aren’t even what we’re talking about here. These are individual workers.

Notice that the problem isn’t due to imperfect information; the company knows full well that Einstein is a golden goose, but they aren’t going to pay him any more than they have to.

We could just accept it, I suppose. As long as the productive work gets done, we could shrug our shoulders and not worry about the fact that corporations are capturing most of the value from the hard work of our engineers and scientists. That seems to be the default response, perhaps because it’s the easiest. But it sure doesn’t seem fair to me.

One solution might be for the company to voluntarily pay Einstein more, or offer him some sort of performance bonus. I wouldn’t rule out this possibility entirely, but this would require the company to be unusually magnanimous. This won’t happen at most corporations. It might happen for researchers at a university, where the administrators are fellow academics. Or it might happen to a corporate executive because other corporate executives feel solidarity for their fellow corporate executives.

That sort of solidarity is most likely why competition hasn’t driven down executive salaries. Theoretically shareholders would have an incentive to choose boards of directors who are willing to work for $20 an hour and elect CEOs who are willing to work for $30 an hour; but in practice old rich White guys feel solidarity with other old rich White guys, and even if there isn’t any direct quid pro quo there is still a general sense that because we are “the same kind of people” we should all look out for each other—and that’s how you get $50 million salaries. And then of course there’s the fact that even publicly-traded companies often have a handful of shareholders who control enough of the shares to win any vote.

In some industries, we don’t need to worry about this too much because productivity probably doesn’t really vary that much; just how good can a fry cook truly be? But this is definitely an issue for a lot of scientists and engineers, particularly at entry-level positions. Some scientists are an awful lot better than other scientists, but they still get paid the same.

Much more common however is the case where the costs of working vary. Some people may have few alternatives, so their opportunity cost is low, driving their wage down; but that doesn’t mean they actually deserve a lower wage. Or they may be disabled, making it harder to work long hours; but even though they work so much harder their pay is the same, so their net benefit is much smaller. Even though they aren’t any more productive, it still seems like they should be paid more to compensate them for that extra cost of working. At the other end are people who start in a position of wealth and power; they have a high opportunity cost because they have so many other options, so it may take very high pay to attract them; but why do they deserve to be paid more just because they have more to start with?

Another option would be some sort of redistribution plan, where we tax the people who are getting a larger share and give it to those who are getting a smaller share. The problem here arises in how exactly you arrange the tax. A theoretical “lump sum tax” where we just figure out the right amount of money and say “Person A: Give $217 to person B! No, we won’t tell you why!” would be optimally efficient because there’s no way it can distort markets if nobody sees it coming; but this is not something we can actually do in the real world. (It also seems a bit draconian; the government doesn’t even tax activities, they just demand arbitrary sums of money?) We’d have to tax profits, or sales, or income; and all of these could potentially introduce distortions and make the market less efficient.

We could offer some sort of publicly-funded performance bonus, and for scientists actually we do; it’s called the Nobel Prize. If you are truly the best of the best of the best as Einstein was, you may have a chance at winning the Nobel and getting $1.5 million. But of course that has to be funded somehow, and it only works for the very very top; it doesn’t make much difference to Jane Engineer who is 20% more productive than her colleagues.

I don’t find any of these solutions satisfying. This time I really can’t offer a good solution. But I think it’s important to keep the problem in mind. It’s important to always remember that “efficient” does not mean “fair”, and being paid at marginal productivity isn’t the same as being paid for overall productivity.