The Tragedy of the Commons

JDN 2457387

In a previous post I talked about one of the most fundamental—perhaps the most fundamental—problem in game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and how neoclassical economic theory totally fails to explain actual human behavior when faced with this problem in both experiments and the real world.

As a brief review, the essence of the game is that both players can either cooperate or defect; if they both cooperate, the outcome is best overall; but it is always in each player’s interest to defect. So a neoclassically “rational” player would always defect—resulting in a bad outcome for everyone. But real human beings typically cooperate, and thus do better. The “paradox” of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that being “rational” results in making less money at the end.

Obviously, this is not actually a good definition of rational behavior. Being short-sighted and ignoring the impact of your behavior on others doesn’t actually produce good outcomes for anybody, including yourself.

But the Prisoner’s Dilemma only has two players. If we expand to a larger number of players, the expanded game is called a Tragedy of the Commons.

When we do this, something quite surprising happens: As you add more people, their behavior starts converging toward the neoclassical solution, in which everyone defects and we get a bad outcome for everyone.

Indeed, people in general become less cooperative, less courageous, and more apathetic the more of them you put together. K was quite apt when he said, “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” There are ways to counteract this effect, as I’ll get to in a moment—but there is a strong effect that needs to be counteracted.

We see this most vividly in the bystander effect. If someone is walking down the street and sees someone fall and injure themselves, there is about a 70% chance that they will go try to help the person who fell—humans are altruistic. But if there are a dozen people walking down the street who all witness the same event, there is only a 40% chance that any of them will help—humans are irrational.

The primary reason appears to be diffusion of responsibility. When we are alone, we are the only one could help, so we feel responsible for helping. But when there are others around, we assume that someone else could take care of it for us, so if it isn’t done that’s not our fault.

There also appears to be a conformity effect: We want to conform our behavior to social norms (as I said, to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). The mere fact that there are other people who could have helped but didn’t suggests the presence of an implicit social norm that we aren’t supposed to help this person for some reason. It never occurs to most people to ask why such a norm would exist or whether it’s a good one—it simply never occurs to most people to ask those questions about any social norms. In this case, by hesitating to act, people actually end up creating the very norm they think they are obeying.

This can lead to what’s called an Abilene Paradox, in which people simultaneously try to follow what they think everyone else wants and also try to second-guess what everyone else wants based on what they do, and therefore end up doing something that none of them actually wanted. I think a lot of the weird things humans do can actually be attributed to some form of the Abilene Paradox. (“Why are we sacrificing this goat?” “I don’t know, I thought you wanted to!”)

Autistic people are not as good at following social norms (though some psychologists believe this is simply because our social norms are optimized for the neurotypical population). My suspicion is that autistic people are therefore less likely to suffer from the bystander effect, and more likely to intervene to help someone even if they are surrounded by passive onlookers. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any good empirical data on that—it appears no one has ever thought to check before.) I’m quite certain that autistic people are less likely to suffer from the Abilene Paradox—if they don’t want to do something, they’ll tell you so (which sometimes gets them in trouble).

Because of these psychological effects that blunt our rationality, in large groups human beings often do end up behaving in a way that appears selfish and short-sighted.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ecology. Recycling, becoming vegetarian, driving less, buying more energy-efficient appliances, insulating buildings better, installing solar panels—none of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to do, especially when weighed against the tens of millions of people who will die if climate change continues unabated. Every recyclable can we throw in the trash is a silent vote for a global holocaust.

But as it no doubt immediately occurred to you to respond: No single one of us is responsible for all that. There’s no way I myself could possibly save enough carbon emissions to significantly reduce climate change—indeed, probably not even enough to save a single human life (though maybe). This is certainly true; the error lies in thinking that this somehow absolves us of the responsibility to do our share.

I think part of what makes the Tragedy of the Commons so different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, at least psychologically, is that the latter has an identifiable victimwe know we are specifically hurting that person more than we are helping ourselves. We may even know their name (and if we don’t, we’re more likely to defect—simply being on the Internet makes people more aggressive because they don’t interact face-to-face). In the Tragedy of the Commons, it is often the case that we don’t know who any of our victims are; moreover, it’s quite likely that we harm each one less than we benefit ourselves—even though we harm everyone overall more.

Suppose that driving a gas-guzzling car gives me 1 milliQALY of happiness, but takes away an average of 1 nanoQALY from everyone else in the world. A nanoQALY is tiny! Negligible, even, right? One billionth of a year, a mere 30 milliseconds! Literally less than the blink of an eye. But take away 30 milliseconds from everyone on Earth and you have taken away 7 years of human life overall. Do that 10 times, and statistically one more person is dead because of you. And you have gained only 10 milliQALY, roughly the value of $300 to a typical American. Would you kill someone for $300?

Peter Singer has argued that we should in fact think of it this way—when we cause a statistical death by our inaction, we should call it murder, just as if we had left a child to drown to keep our clothes from getting wet. I can’t agree with that. When you think seriously about the scale and uncertainty involved, it would be impossible to live at all if we were constantly trying to assess whether every action would lead to statistically more or less happiness to the aggregate of all human beings through all time. We would agonize over every cup of coffee, every new video game. In fact, the global economy would probably collapse because none of us would be able to work or willing to buy anything for fear of the consequences—and then whom would we be helping?

That uncertainty matters. Even the fact that there are other people who could do the job matters. If a child is drowning and there is a trained lifeguard right next to you, the lifeguard should go save the child, and if they don’t it’s their responsibility, not yours. Maybe if they don’t you should try; but really they should have been the one to do it.
But we must also not allow ourselves to simply fall into apathy, to do nothing simply because we cannot do everything. We cannot assess the consequences of every specific action into the indefinite future, but we can find general rules and patterns that govern the consequences of actions we might take. (This is the difference between act utilitarianism, which is unrealistic, and rule utilitarianism, which I believe is the proper foundation for moral understanding.)

Thus, I believe the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is policy. It is to coordinate our actions together, and create enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with that coordinated effort. We don’t look at acts in isolation, but at policy systems holistically. The proper question is not “What should I do?” but “How should we live?”

In the short run, this can lead to results that seem deeply suboptimal—but in the long run, policy answers lead to sustainable solutions rather than quick-fixes.

People are starving! Why don’t we just steal money from the rich and use it to feed people? Well, think about what would happen if we said that the property system can simply be unilaterally undermined if someone believes they are achieving good by doing so. The property system would essentially collapse, along with the economy as we know it. A policy answer to that same question might involve progressive taxation enacted by a democratic legislature—we agree, as a society, that it is justified to redistribute wealth from those who have much more than they need to those who have much less.

Our government is corrupt! We should launch a revolution! Think about how many people die when you launch a revolution. Think about past revolutions. While some did succeed in bringing about more just governments (e.g. the French Revolution, the American Revolution), they did so only after a long period of strife; and other revolutions (e.g. the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution) have made things even worse. Revolution is extremely costly and highly unpredictable; we must use it only as a last resort against truly intractable tyranny. The policy answer is of course democracy; we establish a system of government that elects leaders based on votes, and then if they become corrupt we vote to remove them. (Sadly, we don’t seem so good about that second part—the US Congress has a 14% approval rating but a 95% re-election rate.)

And in terms of ecology, this means that berating ourselves for our sinfulness in forgetting to recycle or not buying a hybrid car does not solve the problem. (Not that it’s bad to recycle, drive a hybrid car, and eat vegetarian—by all means, do these things. But it’s not enough.) We need a policy solution, something like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that will enforce incentives against excessive carbon emissions.

In case you don’t think politics makes a difference, all of the Democrat candidates for President have proposed such plans—Bernie Sanders favors a carbon tax, Martin O’Malley supports an aggressive cap-and-trade plan, and Hillary Clinton favors heavily subsidizing wind and solar power. The Republican candidates on the other hand? Most of them don’t even believe in climate change. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina at least accept the basic scientific facts, but (1) they are very unlikely to win at this point and (2) even they haven’t announced any specific policy proposals for dealing with it.

This is why voting is so important. We can’t do enough on our own; the coordination problem is too large. We need to elect politicians who will make policy. We need to use the systems of coordination enforcement that we have built over generations—and that is fundamentally what a government is, a system of coordination enforcement. Only then can we overcome the tendency among human beings to become apathetic and short-sighted when faced with a Tragedy of the Commons.

Thus ends our zero-lower-bound interest rate policy

JDN 2457383

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

If you are reading the blogs as they are officially published, it will have been over a week since the Federal Reserve ended its policy of zero interest rates. (If you are reading this as a Patreon Blog from the Future, it will only have been a few days.)

The official announcement was made on December 16. The Federal Funds Target Rate will be raised from 0%-0.25% to 0.25%-0.5%. That one-quarter percentage point—itself no larger than the margin of error the Fed allots itself—will make all the difference.

As pointed out in the New York Times, this is the first time nominal interest rates have been raised in almost a decade. But the Fed had been promising it for some time, and thus a major reason they did it was to preserve their own credibility. They also say they think inflation is about to hit the 2% target, though it hasn’t yet (and I was never clear on why 2% was the target in the first place).

Actually, overall inflation is currently near zero. What is at 2% is what’s called “core inflation”, which excludes particularly volatile products such as oil and food. The idea is that we want to set monetary policy based upon long-run trends in the economy as a whole, not based upon sudden dips and surges in oil prices. But right now we are in the very odd scenario of the Fed raising interest rates in order to stop inflation even as the total amount most people need to spend to maintain their standard of living is the same as it was a year ago.

As MSNBC argues, it is essentially an announcement that the Second Depression is over and the economy has now returned to normal. Of course, simply announcing such a thing does not make it true.

Personally, I think this move is largely symbolic. The difference between 0% and 0.25% is unimportant for most practical purposes.

If you owe $100,000 over 30 years at 0% interest, you will pay $277.78 per month, totaling of course $100,000. If your interest rate were raised to 0.25% interest, you would instead owe $288.35 per month, totaling $103,807.28. Even over 30 years, that 0.25% interest raises your total expenditure by less than 4%.

Over shorter terms it’s even less important. If you owe $20,000 over 5 years at 0% interest, you will pay $333.33 per month totaling $20,000. At 0.25%, you would pay $335.46 per month totaling $20,127.34, a mere 0.6% more.

Moreover, if a bank was willing to take out a loan at 0%, they’ll probably still be at 0.25%.

Where it would have the largest impact is in more exotic financial instruments, like zero-amortization or negative-amortization bonds. A zero-amortization bond at 0% is literally free money forever (assuming you can keep rolling it over). A zero-amortization bond at 0.25% means you must at least pay 0.25% of the money back each year. A negative-amortization bond at 0% makes no sense mathematically (somehow you pay back less than 0% at each payment?), while a negative-amortization bond at 0.25% only doesn’t make sense practically. If both zero and negative-amortization seem really bizarre and impossible to justify, that’s because they are. They should not exist. Most exotic financial instruments have no reason to exist, aside from the fact that they can be used to bamboozle people into giving money to the financial corporations that create them. (Which reminds me, I need to see The Big Short. But of course I have to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens first; one must have priorities.)

So, what will happen as a result of this change in interest rates? Probably not much. Inflation might go down a little—which means we might have overall deflation, and that would be bad—and the rate of increase in credit might drop slightly. In the worst-case scenario, unemployment starts to rise again, the Fed realizes their mistake, and interest rates will be dropped back to zero.

I think it’s more instructive to look at why they did this—the symbolic significance behind it.

The zero lower bound is weird. It makes a lot of economists very uncomfortable. The usual rules for how monetary and fiscal policy work break down, because the equation hits up against a constraint—a corner solution, more technically. Krugman often talks about how many of the usual ideas about how interest rates and government spending work collapse at the zero-lower-bound. We have models of this sort of thing that are pretty good, but they’re weird and counter-intuitive, so policymakers never seem to actually use them.

What is the zero lower bound, you ask? Exactly what it says on the tin. There is a lower bound on how low you can set an interest rate, and for all practical purposes that limit is zero. If you start trying to set an interest rate of -5%, people won’t be willing to loan out money and will instead hoard cash. (Interestingly, a central bank with a strong currency, such as that of the US, UK, or EU, can actually set small negative nominal interest rates—because people consider their bonds safer than cash, so they’ll pay for the safety. The ECB, Europe’s Fed, actually did so for awhile.)

The zero-lower-bound actually applies to prices in general, not just interest rates. If a product is so worthless to you that you don’t even want it if it’s free, it’s very rare for anyone to actually pay you to take it—partly because there might be nothing to stop you from taking a huge amount of it and forcing them to pay you ridiculous amounts of money. “How much is this paperclip?” “-$0.75.” “I’ll have 50 billion, please.” In a few rare cases, they might be able to pay you to take it an amount that’s less than what it costs you to store and transport. Also, if they benefit from giving it to you, companies will give you things for free—think ads and free samples. But basically, if people won’t even take something for free, that thing simply doesn’t get sold.

But if we are in a recession, we really don’t want loans to stop being made altogether. So if people are unwilling to take out loans at 0% interest, we’re in trouble. Generally what we have to do is rely on inflation to reduce the real value of money over time, thus creating a real interest rate that’s negative even though the nominal interest rate remains stuck at 0%. But what if inflation is very low? Then there’s nothing you can do except find a way to raise inflation or increase demand for credit. This means relying upon unconventional methods like quantitative easing (trying to cause inflation), or preferably using fiscal policy to spend a bunch of money and thereby increase demand for credit.

What the Fed is basically trying to do here is say that we are no longer in that bad situation. We can now set interest rates where they actually belong, rather than forcing them as low as they’ll go and hoping inflation will make up the difference.

It’s actually similar to how if you take a test and score 100%, there’s no way of knowing whether you just barely got 100%, or if you would have still done as well if the test were twice as hard—but if you score 99%, you actually scored 99% and would have done worse if the test were harder. In the former case you were up against a constraint; in the latter it’s your actual value. The Fed is essentially announcing that we really want interest rates near 0%, as opposed to being bound at 0%—and the way they do that is by setting a target just slightly above 0%.

So far, there doesn’t seem to have been much effect on markets. And frankly, that’s just what I’d expect.

Christmas and the economy

JDN2457380 (Dec 23, 2015)

By the time this post officially goes live, it will be two days before Christmas. (As I actually write, the Federal Reserve just ended our zero-lower-bound interest rate policy. I’ll talk about that more in a later post.)

Christmas is one of the most economically significant of holidays. Partly this is because of the fact that there are more Christians than people of any other religion, but mostly it is because Christmas is the most capitalist of holidays, the one that is by now defined primarily by the surge it creates in consumer spending. Yet even this surge is often wildly overstated.

Total Christmas-related spending is over $600 billion per year, almost exactly equal to the US military budget. (Good news, by the way; the US military budget is declining under the Obama administration, approaching—though not yet reaching—a more sensible and sustainable peacetime level.) This is mostly gifts, but cards, decorations and travel are also important parts.

This is a lot of money, but not so much compared to total US consumer spending, which is $6.7 trillion per year. (The Consumer Expenditure Survey tracks this sort of thing with an obsessive level of detail; if you’ve ever wanted to know how much the average 45-54 year-old American spends on eggs each year, now you can.) Thus, about 9% of our spending is Christmas-related, which honestly seems kind of low given than the season now covers approximately 20% of the year.

The best I can figure, the reason Christmas keeps moving back is a competitive pressure: There’s some sort of advantage to being the first business to start your Christmas sales, so each business tries to be earlier than everyone else was last year—with the result that they all keep moving further and further back in the year. Eventually we’ll just start our Christmas shopping on December 26.

The money supply fluctuates seasonally, and often peaks in December; but it also often peaks in March (and I’m honestly not sure why). So once again, Christmas isn’t as important for the economy as many would have you believe. While it may provide some macroeconomic boost, it provides the largest boost when people have lots of extra money to spend, which is we need it the least.

As I wrote about in last year’s Christmas post, many economists believe that much of this spending is inefficient, because they don’t actually understand what gifts are for. Fortunately economists seem to be coming around and seeing why gifts are actually beneficial, though their reasons for this are sometimes dry enough that they don’t make great Christmas cards. (That doesn’t stop some people from saying that you shouldn’t give gifts, and if you give anything you should give cash.)
So no, the economy will not live or die depending on how much people buy at Christmas. While it is the most economically significant holiday, it is still not really all that economically significant.

What I’m more concerned about is the stress that the Christmas season creates in a lot of people. WebMD, the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and MedicineNet all have articles about the public health damage caused by holiday stress. Death rates actually spike during the holiday season, though the precise reason is unclear—and contrary to rumor it is definitely not suicide. Deaths by heart attack and stroke spike during the holidays, possibly due to lack of medical care.

There are many causes of this stress; not least, I’m sure, is the increased pressure on retail workers. But a lot of it may just be the increased pressure people put on themselves to buy the perfect gift, have the perfect Christmas dinner, not get into a political argument with their racist family members, and so on.

But when we push ourselves so hard to have a perfect holiday, we end up making ourselves miserable. It’s like constantly saying in your head, “Have fun! Why aren’t you having fun!?”

So what I’d like to say to you all is really quite simple: Try to relax. It’s okay if everything doesn’t go perfectly. Happiness is not found in pressuring ourselves to live a perfect life. It is found in appreciating how good our lives already are.

How we can best help refugees

JDN 2457376

Though the debate seems to have simmered down a little over the past few weeks, the fact remains that we are in the middle of a global refugee crisis. There are 4 million refugees from Syria alone, part of 10 million refugees worldwide from various conflicts.

The ongoing occupation of the terrorist group / totalitarian state Daesh (also known as Islamic State, ISIS and ISIL, but like John Kerry, I like to use Daesh precisely because they seem to hate it) has displaced almost 14 million people, 3.3 million of them refugees from Syria.

Most of these refugees have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and, Iraq, for the obvious reason that these countries are both geographically closest and culturally best equipped to handle them.
There is another reason, however: Some of the other countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia, have taken no refugees at all. In an upcoming post I intend to excoriate Saudi Arabia for a number of reasons, but this one is perhaps the most urgent. Their response? They simply deny it outright, claiming they’ve taken millions of refugees and somehow nobody noticed.

Turkey and Lebanon are stretched to capacity, however; they simply do not have the resources to take on more refugees. This gives the other nations of the world only two morally legitimate options:

1. We could take more refugees ourselves.

2. We could supply funding and support to Turkey and Lebanon for them to take on more refugees.

Most of the debate has centered around option (1), and in particular around Obama’s plan to take on about 10,000 refugees to the United States, which Ted Cruz calls “lunacy” (to be fair, if it takes one to know one…).

This debate has actually served more to indict the American population for paranoia and xenophobia than anything else. The fact that 17 US states—including some with Democrat governors—have unilaterally declared that they will not accept refugees (despite having absolutely no Constitutional authority to make such a declaration) is truly appalling.

Even if everything that the xenophobic bigots say were true—even if we really were opening ourselves to increased risk of terrorism and damaging our economy and subjecting ourselves to mass unemployment—we would still have a moral duty as human beings to help these people.

And of course almost all of it is false.

Only a tiny fraction of refugees are terrorists, indeed very likely smaller than the fraction of the native population or the fraction of those who arrive on legal visas, meaning that we would actually be diluting our risk of terrorism by accepting more refugees. And as you may recall from my post on 9/11, our risk of terrorism is already so small that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

There is a correlation between terrorism and refugees, but it’s almost entirely driven by the opposite effect: terrorism causes refugee crises.

The net aggregate economic effect of immigration is most likely positive. The effect on employment is more ambiguous; immigration does appear to create a small increase in unemployment in the short run as all those new people try to find jobs, and there is some evidence that it may reduce wages for local low-skill workers. But the employment effect is small temporary, and there is a long-run boost in overall productivity. However, it may not have much effect on overall growth: the positive correlation between immigration and economic growth is primarily due to the fact that higher growth triggers more immigration.

And of course, it’s important to keep in mind that the reason wages are depressed at all is that people come from places where wages are even lower, so they improve their standard of living, but may also reduce the standard of living of some of the workers who were already here. The paradigmatic example is immigrants who leave a wage of $4 per hour in Mexico, arrive in California, and end up reducing wages in California from $10 to $8. While this certainly hurts some people who went from $10 to $8, it’s so narrow-sighted as to border on racism to ignore the fact that it also raised other people from $4 to $8. The overall effect is not simply to redistribute wealth from some to others, but actually to create more wealth. If there are things we can do to prevent low-skill wages from falling, perhaps we should; but systematically excluding people who need work is not the way to do that.

Accepting 10,000 more refugees would have a net positive effect on the American economy—though given our huge population and GDP, probably a negligible one. It has been pointed out that Germany’s relatively open policy advances the interests of Germany as much as it does those of the refugees; but so what? They are doing the right thing, even if it’s not for entirely altruistic reasons. One of the central insights of economics is that the universe is nonzero-sum; helping someone else need not mean sacrificing your own interests, and when it doesn’t, the right thing to do should be a no-brainer. Instead of castigating Germany for doing what needs to be done for partially selfish reasons, we should be castigating everyone else for not even doing what’s in their own self-interest because they are so bigoted and xenophobic they’d rather harm themselves than help someone else. (Also, it does not appear to be in Angela Merkel’s self-interest to take more refugees; she is spending a lot of political capital to make this happen.)

We could follow Germany’s example, and Obama’s plan would move us in that direction.

But the fact remains that we could go through with Obama’s plan, indeed double, triple, quadruple it—and still not make a significant dent in the actual population of refugees who need help. When 1,500,000 people need help and the most powerful nation in the world offers to help 10,000, that isn’t an act of great openness and generosity; it’s almost literally the least we could do. 10,000 is only 0.7% of 1.5 million; even if we simply accepted an amount of refugees proportional to our own population it would be more like 70,000. If we instead accepted an amount of refugees proportional to our GDP we should be taking on closer to 400,000.

This is why in fact I think option (2) may be the better choice.

There actually are real cultural and linguistic barriers to assimilation for Syrian people in the United States, barriers which are much lower in Turkey and Lebanon. Immigrant populations always inevitably assimilate eventually, but there is a period of transition which is painful for both immigrants and locals, often lasting a decade or more. On top of this there is the simple logistical cost of moving all those people that far; crossing the border into Lebanon is difficult enough without having to raft across the Mediterranean, let alone being airlifted or shipped all the way across the Atlantic afterward. The fact that many refugees are willing to bear such a cost serves to emphasize their desperation; but it also suggests that there may be alternatives that would work out better for everyone.

The United States has a large population at 322 million; but Turkey (78 million) has about a quarter of our population and Jordan (8 million) and Lebanon (6 million) are about the size of our largest cities.

Our GDP, on the other hand, is vastly larger. At $18 trillion, we have 12 times the GDP of Turkey ($1.5 T), and there are individual American billionaires with wealth larger than the GDPs of Lebanon ($50 B) and Jordan ($31 B).

This means that while we have an absolute advantage in population, we have a comparative advantage in wealth—and the benefits of trade depend on comparative advantage. It therefore makes sense for us to in a sense “trade” wealth for population; in exchange for taking on fewer refugees, we would offer to pay a larger share of the expenses involved in housing, feeding, and ultimately assimilating those refugees.

Another thing we could offer (and have a comparative as well as absolute advantage in) is technology. These surprisingly-nice portable shelters designed by IKEA are an example of how First World countries can contribute to helping refugees without necessarily accepting them into their own borders (as well as an example of why #Scandinaviaisbetter). We could be sending equipment and technicians to provide electricity, Internet access, or even plumbing to the refugee camps. We could ship them staple foods or even MREs. (On the other hand, I am not impressed by the tech entrepreneurs whose “solutions” apparently involve selling more smartphone apps.)

The idea of actually taking on 400,000 or even 70,000 additional people into the United States is daunting even for those of us who strongly believe in helping the refugees—in the former case we’re adding another Cleveland, and even in the latter we’d be almost doubling Dearborn. But if we estimate the cost of simply providing money to support the refugee camps, the figures come out a lot less demanding.
Charities are currently providing money on the order of millions—which is to say on the order of single dollars per person. GBP 887,000 sounds like a lot of money until you realize it’s less than $0.50 per Syrian refugee.

Suppose we were to grant $5,000 per refugee per year. That’s surely more than enough. The UN is currently asking for $6.5 billion, which is only about $1,500 per refugee.

Yet to supply that much for all 4 million refugees would cost us only $20 billion per year, a mere 0.1% of our GDP. (Or if you like, a mere 3% of our military budget, which is probably smaller than what the increase would be if we stepped up our military response to Daesh.)

I say we put it to a vote among the American people: Are you willing to accept a flat 0.1% increase in income tax in order to help the refugees? (Would you even notice?) This might create an incentive to become a refugee when you’d otherwise have tried to stay in Syria, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Daesh, like any state, depends upon its tax base to function, so encouraging emigration undermines Daesh taxpayer by taxpayer. We could make it temporary and tied to the relief efforts—or, more radically, we could not do that, and use it as a starting point to build an international coalition for a global basic income.

Right now a global $5,000 per person per year would not be feasible (that would be almost half of the world’s GDP); but something like $1,000 would be, and would eliminate world hunger immediately and dramatically reduce global poverty. The US alone could in fact provide a $1,000 global basic income, though it would cost $7.2 trillion, which is over 40% of our $18.1 trillion GDP—not beyond our means, but definitely stretching them to the limit. Yet simply by including Europe ($18.5 T), China ($12.9 T), Japan ($4.2 T), India ($2.2 T), and Brazil ($1.8 T), we’d reduce the burden among the whole $57.7 trillion coalition to 12.5% of GDP. That’s roughly what we already spend on Medicare and Social Security. Not a small amount, to be sure; but this would get us within arm’s reach of permanently ending global poverty.

Think of the goodwill we’d gain around the world; think of how much it would undermine Daesh’s efforts to recruit followers if everyone knew that just across the border is a guaranteed paycheck from that same United States that Daesh keeps calling the enemy. This isn’t necessarily contradictory to a policy of accepting more refugees, but it would be something we could implement immediately, with minimal cost to ourselves.

And I’m sure there’d be people complaining that we were only doing it to make ourselves look good and stabilize the region economically, and it will all ultimately benefit us eventually—which is very likely true. But again, I say: So what? Would you rather we do the right thing and benefit from it, or do the wrong thing just so we dare not help ourselves?

No, advertising is not signaling

JDN 2457373

Awhile ago, I wrote a post arguing that advertising is irrational, that at least with advertising as we know it, no real information is conveyed and thus either consumers are being irrational in their purchasing decisions, or advertisers are irrational for buying ads that don’t work.

One of the standard arguments neoclassical economists make to defend the rationality of advertising is that advertising is signaling—that even though the content of the ads conveys no useful information, the fact that there are ads is a useful signal of the real quality of goods being sold.

The idea is that by spending on advertising, a company shows that they have a lot of money to throw around, and are therefore a stable and solvent company that probably makes good products and is going to stick around for awhile.

Here are a number of different papers all making this same basic argument, often with sophisticated mathematical modeling. This paper takes an even bolder approach, arguing that people benefit from ads and would therefore pay to get them if they had to. Does that sound even remotely plausible to you? It sure doesn’t to me. Some ads are fairly entertaining, but generally if someone is willing to pay money for a piece of content, they charge money for that content.

Could spending on advertising offer a signal of the quality of a product or the company that makes it? Yes. That is something that actually could happen. The reason this argument is ridiculous is not that advertising signaling couldn’t happen—it’s that advertising is clearly nowhere near the best way to do that. The content of ads is clearly nothing remotely like what it would be if advertising were meant to be a costly signal of quality.

Look at this ad for Orangina. Look at it. Look at it.

Now, did that ad tell you anything about Orangina? Anything at all?

As far as I can tell, the thing it actually tells you isn’t even true—it strongly implies that Orangina is a form of aftershave when in fact it is an orange-flavored beverage. It’d be kind of like having an ad for the iPad that involves scantily-clad dog-people riding the iPad like it’s a hoverboard. (Now that I’ve said it, Apple is probably totally working on that ad.)

This isn’t an isolated incident for Orangina, who have a tendency to run bizarre and somewhat suggestive (let’s say PG-13) TV spots involving anthropomorphic animals.

But more than that, it’s endemic to the whole advertising industry.

Look at GEICO, for instance; without them specifically mentioning that this is car insurance, you’d never know what they were selling from all the geckos,

and Neanderthals,

and… golf Krakens?

Progressive does slightly better, talking about some of their actual services while also including an adorably-annoying spokesperson (she’s like Jar Jar, but done better):

State Farm also includes at least a few tidbits about their insurance amidst the teleportation insanity:

But honestly the only car insurance commercials I can think of that are actually about car insurance are Allstate’s, and even then they’re mostly about Dennis Haybert’s superhuman charisma. I would buy bacon cheeseburgers from this man, and I’m vegetarian.

Esurance is also relatively informative (and owned by Allstate, by the way); they talk about their customer service and low prices (in other words, the only things you actually care about with car insurance). But even so, what reason do we have to believe their bald assertions of good customer service? And what’s the deal with the whole money-printing thing?

And of course I could deluge you with examples from other companies, from Coca-Cola’s polar bears and Santa Claus to this commercial, which is literally the most American thing I have ever seen:

If you’re from some other country and are going, “What!?” right now, that’s totally healthy. Honestly I think we would too if constant immersion in this sort of thing hadn’t deadened our souls.

Do these ads signal that their companies have a lot of extra money to burn? Sure. But there are plenty of other ways to do that which would also serve other valuable functions. I honestly can’t imagine any scenario in which the best way to tell me the quality of an auto insurance company is to show me 30-second spots about geckos and Neanderthals.

If a company wants to signal that they have a lot of money, they could simply report their financial statement. That’s even regulated so that we know it has to be accurate (and this is one of the few financial regulations we actually enforce). The amount you spent on an ad is not obvious from the result of the ad, and doesn’t actually prove that you’re solvent, only that you have enough access to credit. (Pets.com famously collapsed the same year they ran a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad.)

If a company wants to signal that they make a good product, they could pay independent rating agencies to rate products on their quality (you know, like credit rating agencies and reviewers of movies and video games). Paying an independent agency is far more reliable than the signaling provided by advertising. Consumers could also pay their own agencies, which would be even more reliable; credit rating agencies and movie reviewers do sometimes have a conflict of interest, which could be resolved by making them report to consumers instead of producers.

If a company wants to establish that they are both financially stable and socially responsible, they could make large public donations to important charities. (This is also something that corporations do on occasion, such as Subaru’s recent campaign.) Or they could publicly announce a raise for all their employees. This would not only provide us with the information that they have this much money to spend—it would actually have a direct positive social effect, thus putting their money where there mouth is.

Signaling theory in advertising is based upon the success of signaling theory in evolutionary biology, which is beyond dispute; but evolution is tightly constrained in what it can do, so wasteful costly signals make sense. Human beings are smarter than that; we can find ways to convey information that don’t involve ludicrous amounts of waste.

If we were anywhere near as rational as these neoclassical models assume us to be, we would take the constant bombardment of meaningless ads not as a signal of a company’s quality but as a personal assault—they are needlessly attacking our time and attention when all the genuinely-valuable information they convey could have been conveyed much more easily and reliably. We would not buy more from them; we would refuse to buy from them. And indeed, I’ve learned to do just that; the more a company bombards me with annoying or meaningless advertisements, the more I make a point of not buying their product if I have a viable substitute. (For similar reasons, I make a point of never donating to any charity that uses hard-sell tactics to solicit donations.)

But of course the human mind is limited. We only have so much attention, and by bombarding us frequently and intensely enough they can overcome our mental defenses and get us to make decisions we wouldn’t if we were optimally rational. I can feel this happening when I am hungry and a food ad appears on TV; my autonomic hunger response combined with their expert presentation of food in the perfect lighting makes me want that food, if only for the few seconds it takes my higher cognitive functions to kick in and make me realize that I don’t eat meat and I don’t like mayonnaise.

Car commercials have always been particularly baffling to me. Who buys a car based on a commercial? A decision to spend $20,000 should not be made based upon 30 seconds of obviously biased information. But either people do buy cars based on commercials or they don’t; if they do, consumers are irrational, and if they don’t, car companies are irrational.

Advertising isn’t the source of human irrationality, but it feeds upon human irrationality, and is specifically designed to exploit our own stupidity to make us spend money in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. This means that markets will not be efficient, and huge amounts of productivity can be wasted because we spent it on what they convinced us to buy instead of what would truly have made our lives better. Those companies then profit more, which encourages them to make even more stuff nobody actually wants and sell it that much harder… and basically we all end up buying lots of worthless stuff and putting it in our garages and wondering what happened to our money and the meaning in our lives. Neoclassical economists really need to stop making ridiculous excuses for this damaging and irrational behavior–and maybe then we could actually find a way to make it stop.

Something is wrong with the corporate income tax

JDN 2457369

The US corporate income tax is clearly not working.
While at one time the corporate income tax took in almost as much revenue as the personal income tax, those days are long gone. In 1934 the personal income tax took in $420 million and the corporate income tax took in $364 million, (adjusted for inflation that’s $7.4 billion and $6.5 billion—still remarkably small! Taxes in the US used to be extremely low; now they are merely quite low). Today, the personal income tax takes in $1.39 trillion while the corporate income tax only takes in $320 billion. As you can see in the graph below (brought to you by Truthful Politics), while personal income tax revenue as a portion of GDP has been about the same since WW2, corporate income tax revenue has been steadily declining.

revenue_sources_GDP

Part of the problem is that it is so easy for corporations to hide their assets offshore; an estimated $2 trillion is currently held in corporate offshore accounts, almost all of it there to avoid US corporate tax.

The US corporate income tax has some unique features that set it apart from the corporate taxes of most other countries.
One, the rate of the US corporate tax is exceptionally high. That’s highly unusual; for almost every other sort of tax, the US tax rate is among the lowest, particularly when you compare with other First World countries. The United States was in a sense founded upon the idea of not paying taxes, and we have upheld that ideal for two centuries and counting.

Two, the US has a worldwide corporate tax system, whereas most countries have a territorial corporate tax system. In theory, this means that US corporations are required to pay tax on all their profits, wherever they are made, while most countries only require you to pay tax on profits you made in that country.

But wait—didn’t I just say that corporations hide trillions of dollars offshore to avoid US corporate tax? How can they do that, if they’re required to pay tax on all worldwide profits?

In a word? Loopholes.

Two that are particularly popular are inversion and transfer pricing. I won’t bore you with all the details, but basically inversion is when a US company pretends to be owned by a foreign company (I mean, I guess they are legally owned, but only on paper—real leadership rarely changes), so that their profits are now accounted in that foreign country; transfer pricing is a system by which corporations “buy” services from their subsidiaries in other countries, usually at ludicrously high prices in order to justify saying that they took a loss but their subsidiaries (which are not legally US corporations) made huge profits.

Of course, those are far from the only loopholes. There’s a long and ever-expanding list, as loopholes are like the Hydra: Cut off one head and two more shall emerge. For each loophole we close, lobbyists are hard at work creating two more. We must kill it with fire as Hercules did—burn out the entire corporate tax (and lobbying!) system as we know it and make something new.

In fact, most of the money corporations supposedly have “offshore” is actually being stored and spent here in the US. The “accounts” are offshore, but the actual cash, or more likely the actual encrypted servers that store the numbers (for that is what almost all of our money is nowadays—numbers in encrypted servers), are all here in the US. In the rare case that the money itself is actually elsewhere, they just take loans using it as collateral and spend the loan money here—because corporate debt payments are tax-deductible.

So this argument I see a lot that we need a “tax holiday” to encourage corporations to bring their money home and create jobs here is ridiculous. No, they’re already creating any jobs they were planning on creating (which of course they do only on the basis of expected consumer demand).

This money is already being used for everything it would be used for. The only distortion that corporate tax avoidance causes is a lack of tax revenue.

Now, there are two possible ways we could solve this problem in corporate tax reform.

The first is the tack Bernie Sanders takes, and it’s actually one of the few things I strongly disagree with him about. Bernie Sanders plans to reform the corporate tax system in a manner that will force corporations to actually pay taxes on their profits, closing most of these loopholes that allow them to avoid taxation.

The second is the one I favor, and for once I find myself agreeing with the American Enterprise Institute. We should eliminate the corporate tax entirely, and replace it with a higher tax rate on dividends and capital gains. I even rather like their idea of linking the tax rates on capital gains to the tax rates on ordinary income, so there is no longer any incentive to make your income be (or look likecarried interest) capital income instead of labor income.

Now, when I say that I agree with the American Enterprise Institute against Bernie Sanders, an explanation is surely in order. Normally quite the opposite is the case.

Well, first of all I also agree with the business writers in The Atlantic and The New York Times on this one, which should make my view a bit less surprising. But still, I should explain why many liberal economists think that the corporate income tax needs to disappear, since the common perception is that the corporate income tax affects the very rich, and normally liberal economists are all about raising taxes on the very rich in order to raise revenue while minimizing the harms of taxes.

And indeed I am all about raising taxes on the very rich—indeed, my proposed tax plan is the most progressive tax system this side of Eisenhower.

The problem is, we’re not sure if the corporate income tax actually does that.

I created my tax incidence series in large part to make this one fundamental point: The the person who writes the check is not necessarily person who actually pays the tax.

For personal income taxes, we understand their incidence relatively well. While we do think they create some small distortions in the economy as a whole, in general labor is inelastic enough that the burden of a personal income tax falls largely upon the person receiving the income. This makes income taxes a good means of actually redistributing income from one person to another. It’s very hard to disincentivize income; at most we might disincentivize work, and in a country that has twice as many unemployed people as job openings it’s hard for me to see how we have a problem with insufficient work incentives. If the Beveridge Curve ever gets so high up that we actually have more job openings than people looking for jobs, okay, then we can start talking about work incentives. It hasn’t happened at least in my lifetime.

Many economists argue that consumption is an even better thing to tax than income, because they want to increase the savings rate; but I am increasingly convinced that this is not actually a useful thing to do, and indeed that the savings rate is almost literally meaningless. (Perhaps in a future post I’ll talk about why I think so.) I will say this, however: Sales taxes have extremely well-understood incidence. They are the thing that our tax models were originally developed to handle, and they handle it very well. We can predict quite accurately what the effect of increases in sales taxes (or taxes on particular goods, such as alcohol) will be on consumer choices. Their predictability is a reason to recommend them, but in my opinion not sufficient to justify widespread use of sales taxes rather than income taxes.

The incidence of corporate income tax, on the other hand, is almost completely unknown. A substantial amount of research has gone into trying to understand corporate income taxes, but it is still not entirely clear who bears the primary burden of the corporate income tax, whether it is the owners of a corporation, its employees, or its customers. Because, pace Citizens United, corporations are not actually people. Corporations do not experience utility that can be raised or lowered. The money they make ultimately goes to actual human beings, and it’s those actual human beings we are interested in taxing.

To see this, think about what happens when we impose a tax on a corporation’s profits. One possibility is that their behavior is completely inelastic: They’ll just keep doing exactly the same thing they were doing, only now making less profit. But does that seem likely? No, it’s far more likely that they’re going to try to find some way to avoid the tax, or at least reduce how much they have to pay. They’ll use offshore banking and clever accounting methods to make it look like they have less profit than they really do. Even worse, they may even change the way that they run their company—producing fewer products or raising prices, laying off employees or reducing wages. They may decide not to make investments they otherwise would have, or overspend on capital they don’t actually need just for the tax deduction. All of these activities create real distortions in the economy and cause deadweight loss; and the harm they cause to employees or consumers could be much larger than the pain they impose on the owners of the corporation.

If we knew which of these strategies corporations would take, then we could predict the outcome and base our tax policy on that. But at present we are unable to do that. In fact, all of these strategies are probably employed by various corporations, and what we most care about is the aggregate effect—but we are currently unable to predict even that.

Indeed, given that they have so many options, it is most likely that the owners of corporations do not bear the burden of corporate income taxes. As you may recall from my tax incidence series, the person who bears a tax is the one who is least elastic; that is, the one who changes their behavior in response to the tax the least. This is likely to be the one who has the fewest alternatives—and employees and consumers have far fewer alternatives than corporate executives do. Indeed, employees probably have the fewest alternatives, and are likely the most inelastic; thus, they are probably the ones who actually bear the burden of the corporate income tax. And most inelastic of all are the employees at the bottom of the ladder (or should I say primate hierarchy), people like interns, janitors, and cashiers.

It may be counter-intuitive, but it is most likely true: By eliminating the corporate income tax, we will most likely create jobs and raise wages, especially for the people at the bottom. Janitors and cashiers may be the ones who feel the largest increase in pay.

There is a legitimate concern that raising capital gains rates could even have a similar effect. Under certain assumptions, the Atkinson-Stiglitz Theorem famously says that taxes on capital income cannot be used to redistribute wealth because they will impose more cost on workers than they raise in revenue for the transfer. They would reduce inequality only at the cost of reducing overall income, which clearly isn’t what we want. That would actually violate the Difference Principle, the seminal contribution to the theory of distributive justice we owe to John Rawls.

But the assumptions of that theorem are highly unrealistic, as I discussed in an earlier post. With a realistic idea of how capital income is actually allocated (I honestly can’t bear to say “earned” in this context), it becomes fairly obvious that taxes on capital income create minimal, if any, real distortions on hiring and investment. While corporate profits are fairly closely tied to the actual production and distribution of goods, capital income most assuredly is not. A corporate income tax takes money away from a corporation such as Apple or Boeing (well, not Apple or Boeing in particular, since they avoid it expertly; but the corporations that aren’t big enough to avoid corporate taxes are largely ones you’ve never heard of—yet another reason they’re unfair), who then most likely take it from their employees or their customers. A capital gains tax takes money away from people who bought and sold shares of Apple and Boeing, possibly thousands of times per second, people who most likely don’t even work there, have nothing to do with any decisions those companies have ever made, and may not even buy any of their products. I think you can see why in the latter case the decisions of the company are a lot less likely to be distorted.

It’s also harder to avoid capital gains taxes (albeit by no means impossible), especially if they are structured properly without loopholes. Thus, the same nominal rate on capital gains instead of corporate profits would likely raise a great deal more revenue.

In short, the corporate income tax is not working; I say we get rid of it altogether.

Why does nobody want to become a teacher?

JDN 2457366

The United States is currently suffering a large and growing shortage of qualified teachers, particularly in grades K-12. In some particular areas, this shortage is extremely acute; high schools are not able to teach some courses because there is simply no one qualified to teach them. Science and math teachers are in particularly high demand, because these programs are being expanded even as the people qualified to teach them are shifting over to working at the college level or in the private sector.

Other countries are also suffering severe teacher shortages, including the UK and several other countries in the EU.
The problem is projected to get worse: Enrollments in teacher training are rapidly declining. Meanwhile, because somewhere along the way people got convinced that the problem with education is that our teachers aren’t smart enough (this is completely, totally wrong by the way), standards for becoming a teacher are becoming ever more stringent, narrowing the pool even more.

This is a very serious problem, because education—often called “human capital investment” in economic jargon—is one of the most important investments any society can make. Indeed, it may be the most important, the one factor of production that is absolutely indispensable. If you run out of one raw material, you can make products out of something else. Manual labor can be replaced by machines. If you don’t have enough machines, you can build more. But if you find yourself without anyone who knows how to read and do arithmetic, how are you going to replace that? If we imagine a scenario like being trapped on a desert island or colonizing Mars where we have to start from scratch and we are only allowed to have one factor of production, education is the one we would want to have. (I guess if it’s Mars you do need a certain bare minimum of physical capital, like a spacesuit.)

The teacher shortage is most acute in high-poverty areas, where educational outcomes are terrible. Indeed, the most important cause of the failings of the US education system has always been poverty.

Why are teachers in poor schools so underqualified? Because their working conditions are terrible. Turnover is extremely high because teachers are underpaid, the schools are undersupplied, and their administrators do not support them.

Why are there so many teachers not qualified to teach their subjects? Because people who are qualified can find better jobs in other places. Jobs just as rewarding, that make just as large a contribution to society, which are more pleasant, offer more autonomy, and pay a lot better.

If you are an expert in physics, you could become a physicist and make a median income of $106,000.

If you are an expert in economics, you could become an economist and make a median income of $92,000.

If you are an expert in biology, you could become a biochemist and make a median income of $81,000.

Or, instead of all those things, you could become a high school teacher and make a median income of $55,000. Gee, I wonder which one you’re going to do?

Keep that in mind if it sounds ridiculous to you to pay teachers $100,000 salaries.

Even in wealthy schools, teachers are miserable; I have this on direct testimony from my father, who has taught high school in Ann Arbor for almost 20 years now. There are a lot of teachers who believe in making a difference through education, but quickly become burnt out and leave for better working conditions.

I know in my own case that I’m not planning on teaching high school, even though I know I’d be very good at it and I’ve always found teaching very rewarding. I’d actually be qualified to teach several subjects, from mathematics to social studies and even including physics and Latin. Any public school would be thrilled to have me—but probably not thrilled enough to pay me as much as I’d get from a university, international institution, or policy think-tank. So it’s hard for me to justify the career decision of going into public education.

The absolute highest-paid teacher in the Ann Arbor Public Schools is paid $109,000 gross—and Ann Arbor is one of the highest-paying school systems in the nation, and not coincidentally also one of the best. Most of the professors at the University of Michigan are paid over $100,000 gross and some are paid over $300,000. (As a public school, the University of Michigan releases all its salaries.)

So, you’re living in Ann Arbor… you have a graduate degree… you want to work in education; you could either start at $40,000 and maybe work your way up to $100,000 by teaching high school, or you could start at $100,000 and maybe work your way up to $300,000 by teaching college. (Admittedly, to teach in college you generally also need to do research work and probably get a PhD; so it’s not quite an equal comparison. But the most-qualified educators would be good at either job.)

Economics, along with most science and math fields, pays particularly well outside education. This senior economist position at the World Bank pays at grade GG, which is a minimum starting net salary of $102,000.
How can we solve our teacher shortage? It’s really quite simple: Offer higher salaries for teachers. If you want the best-qualified people in your classrooms, you must pay salaries that attract the best-qualified people. If you pay substandard salaries, you’re going to attract substandard talent. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” isn’t a law of nature; it’s a result of public policy decisions to keep teachers systematically underpaid.

Most of the time when people say “It’s just ECON 101”, they don’t actually understand economics very well and likely have not actually taken ECON 101. But this really basically is a question of ECON 101: Supply and demand. If you have a shortage of something, not enough people willing to produce it compared to the number of people who want to buy it, you must raise the price.

Would that be expensive? Yes it would. Doubling the salary of every teacher would raise total spending on education by about 75%, because teacher compensation is about three-quarters of education spending. This would raise US K-12 education spending from about $600 billion per year to more like $1.05 trillion per year, an additional $450 billion per year in public spending, or a little less than $1,500 per American per year. That is not a small amount of money; indeed, it’s about three times what we’d need to end world hunger. And this is actually an underestimate, since we also hope to hire more teachers and should also improve facilities while we’re at it. So a truly comprehensive educational reform project could very well double our total spending on K-12 education to $1.2 trillion.

And if you want to go up there on a podium and actually tell people, “It would be nice to improve our educational system, but we simply can’t afford to do it without raising taxes unreasonably high!” then that is absolutely a reasonable argument to make. There are always tradeoffs in life. At some point, maybe it really isn’t worth spending an extra million dollars to educate one more child. (Is it worth an extra million dollars to educate two more children? Based on net present value of earnings, yes. And frankly I don’t think net present value of earnings even gets close to assessing the true value of an education; it’s a very weak lower bound.)

But I am sick and tired of people saying “Education is our highest priority!” and then refusing to actually spend the money it would take to improve our educational system. This is not a question of “finding solutions”; we know what to do. Raise teacher salaries. Improve schools. Buy new textbooks. People just aren’t willing to actually pony up the cash to do it. They want an easy way out, some simple way of making education better that somehow won’t cost anything. But we’ve been searching for that for awhile now—don’t you think we’d have found it by now?

Why building more roads doesn’t stop rush hour

JDN 2457362

The topic of this post was selected based on the very first Patreon vote (which was albeit limited because I only had three patrons eligible to vote and only one of them actually did vote; but these things always start small, right?). It is what you (well, one of you) wanted to see. In future months there will be more such posts, and hopefully more people will vote.

Most Americans face an economic paradox every morning and every evening. Our road network is by far the largest in the world (for three reasons: We’re a huge country geographically, we have more money than anyone else, and we love our cars), and we continue to expand it; yet every morning around 8:00-9:00 and every evening around 17:00-18:00 we face rush hour, in which our roads become completely clogged by commuters and it takes two or three times as long to get anywhere.

Indeed, rush hour is experienced around the world, though it often takes the slightly different form of clogged public transit instead of clogged roads. In most countries, there are two specific one-hour periods in the morning and the evening in which all transportation is clogged to a standstill.

This is probably such a familiar part of your existence you never stopped to question it. But in fact it is quite bizarre; the natural processes of economic supply and demand should have solved this problem decades ago, so why haven’t they?

There are a number of important forces at work here, all of which conspire to doom our transit systems.

The first is the Tragedy of the Commons, which I’ll likely write about in the future (but since it didn’t win the vote, not just yet). The basic idea of the Tragedy of the Commons is similar to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but expanded to a large number of people. A Tragedy of the Commons is a situation in which there are many people, each of whom has the opportunity to either cooperate with the group and help everyone a small amount, or defect from the group and help themselves a larger amount. If everyone cooperates, everyone is better off; but holding everyone else’s actions fixed, it is in each person’s self-interest to defect.

As it turns out, people do act closer to the neoclassical prediction in the Tragedy of the Commons—which is something I’d definitely like to get into at some point. Two different psychological mechanisms counter one another, and result in something fairly close to the prediction of neoclassical rational self-interest, at least when the number of people involved is very large. It’s actually a good example of how real human beings can deviate from neoclassical rationality both in a good way (we are altruistic) and in a bad way (we are irrational).

The large-scale way roads are a Tragedy of the Commons is that they are a public good, something that we share as a society. Except for toll roads (which I’ll get to in a moment), roads are set up so that once they are built, anyone can use them; so the best option for any individual person is to get everyone else to pay to build them and then quite literally free-ride on the roads everyone else built. But if everyone tries to do that, nobody is going to pay for the roads at all.

And indeed, our roads are massively underfunded. Simply to maintain currently-existing roads we need to spend about an additional $100 billion per year over what we’re already spending. Yet once you factor in all the extra costs of damaged vehicles, increased accidents, time wasted, and the fact that fixing things is cheaper than replacing them, in fact the cost to not maintain our roads is about 3 times as large as that. This is exactly what you expect to see in a Tragedy of the Commons; there’s a huge benefit for everyone just sitting there, not getting done, because nobody wants to pay for it themselves. Michigan saw this quite dramatically when we voted down increased road funding because it would have slightly increased sales taxes. (Granted, we should be funding roads with fuel taxes, not general sales taxes—but those are hardly any more popular.)

Toll roads can help with this, because they internalize the externality: When you have to pay for the roads that you use, you either use them less (creating less wear and tear) or pay more; either way, the gap between what is paid and what is needed is closed. And indeed, toll roads are better maintained than other roads. There are downsides, however; the additional effort to administrate the tolls is expensive, and traffic can be slowed down by toll booths (though modern transponder systems mitigate this effect substantially). Also, it’s difficult to fully privatize roads, because there is a large up-front cost and it takes a long time for a toll road to become profitable; most corporations don’t want to wait that long.

But we do build a lot of roads, and yet still we have rush hour. So that isn’t the full explanation.

The small-scale way that roads are a Tragedy of the Commons is that when you decide to drive during rush hour, you are in a sense defecting in a Tragedy of the Commons. You will get to your destination sooner than if you had waited until traffic clears; but by adding one more car to the congestion you have slowed everyone else down just a little bit. When we sum up all these little delays, we get the total gridlock that is rush hour. If you had instead waited to drive on clear roads, you would get to your destination without inconveniencing anyone else—but you’d get there a lot later.

The second major reason why we have rush hour is what is called induced demand. When you widen a road or add a parallel route, you generally fail to reduce traffic congestion on that route in the long run. What happens instead is that driving during rush hour becomes more convenient for a little while, which makes more people start driving during rush hour—they buy a car when they used to take the bus, or they don’t leave as early to go to work. Eventually enough people shift over that the equilibrium is restored—and the equilibrium is gridlock.

But if you think carefully, that can’t be the whole explanation. There are only so many people who could start driving during rush hour, so what if we simply built enough roads to accommodate them all? And if our public transit systems were better, people would feel no need to switch to driving, even if driving had in fact been made more convenient. And indeed, transportation economists have found that adding more capacity does reduce congestion—it just isn’t enough unless you also improve public transit. So why aren’t we improving public transit? See above, Tragedy of the Commons.

Yet we still don’t have a complete explanation, because of something that’s quite obvious in hindsight: Why do we all work 9:00 to 17:00!? There’s no reason for that. There’s nothing inherent about the angle of sunlight or something which requires us to work these hours—indeed, if there were, Daylight Savings Time wouldn’t work (which is not to say that it works well—Daylight Savings Times kills).

There should be a competitive market pressure to work different hours, which should ultimately lead to an equilibrium where traffic is roughly constant throughout the day, at least during the time when a large swath of the population is awake and outside. Congestion should spread itself out over time, because it is to the advantage of all involved if each driver tries to drive at a time when other driver’s aren’t. Driving outside of rush hour gives us an opportunity for something like “temporal arbitrage”, where you can pay a small amount of time here to get a larger amount of time there. And if there’s one thing a competitive economy is supposed to get rid of, it’s arbitrage.

But no, we keep almost all our working hours aligned at 09:00-17:00, and thus we get rush hour.

In fact, a lot of jobs would function better if they weren’t aligned in this way—retail sales, for example, is most successful during the “off hours”, because people only shop when they aren’t working. (Well, except for online shopping, and even then they’re not supposed to.) Banks continually insist on making their hours 9:00 to 17:00 when they know that on most days they’d actually get more business from 17:00 to 19:00 than they did from 9:00 to 17:00. Some banks are at least figuring that out enough to be open from 17:00 to 19:00—but they still don’t seem to grasp that retail banking services have no reason to be open during normal business hours. Commerce banking services do; but that’s a small portion of their overall customers (albeit not of their overall revenue). There’s no reason to have so many full branches open so many hours with most of the tellers doing nothing most of the time.

Education would be better off being later in the day, when students—particularly teenagers—have a chance to sleep in the way their brains are evolved to. The benefits of later school days in terms of academic performance and public health are actually astonishingly large. When you move the start of high school from 07:00 to 09:00, auto collisions involving teenagers drop 70%. Perhaps should be the new slogans: “Early classes cause car crashes.” Since 25% of auto collisions occur during rush hour, here’s another: “Always working nine to five? Vehicular homicide.”

Other jobs could have whatever hours they please. There’s no reason for most forms of manufacturing to be done at any particular hour of the day. Most clerical and office work could be done at any time (and thanks to the Internet, any place; though there are real benefits to working in an office). Writing can be done whenever it is convenient for the author—and when you think about it, an awful lot of jobs basically amount to writing.

Finance is only handled 09:00-17:00 because we force it to be. The idea of “opening” and “closing” the stock market each day is profoundly anachronistic, and actually amounts to granting special arbitrage privileges to the small number of financial institutions that are allowed to do so-called “after hours” trading.

And then there’s the fact that different people have different circadian rhythms, require different amounts of sleep and prefer to sleep at different times—it’s genetic. (My boyfriend and I are roughly three hours phase-shifted relative to one another, which made it surprisingly convenient to stay in touch when I lived in California and he lived in Michigan.)

Why do we continue to accept such absurdity?

Whenever you find yourself asking that question, try this answer first, for it is by far the most likely:

Social norms.

Social norms will make human beings do just about anything, from eating cockroaches to murdering elephants, from kilts to burqas, from waving giant foam hands to throwing octopus onto ice rinks, from landing on the moon to crashing into the World Trade Center, from bombing Afghanistan to marching on Washington, from eating only raw foods to using dead pigs as sex toys. Our basic mental architecture is structured around tribal identity, and to preserve that identity we will follow almost any rule imaginable. To a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

And indeed I can find no other explanation for why we continue to work on a “nine-to-five” 09:00-17:00 schedule (or for that matter why it probably feels weird to you that I say “17:00” instead of the far less efficient and more confusion-prone “5:00 PM”). Our productivity has skyrocketed, increasing by a factor of 4 just since 1950 (and these figures dramatically underestimate the gains in productivity from computer technology, because so much is in the form of free content, which isn’t counted in GDP). We could do the same work in a quarter the time, or twice as much in half the time. Yet still we continue to work the same old 40-hour work week, nine-to-five work day. We each do the work of a dozen previous workers, yet we still find a way to fill the same old work week, and the rich who grow ever richer still pay us more or less the same real wages. It’s all basically social norms at this point; this is how things have always been done, and we can’t imagine any other way. When you get right down to it, capitalism is fundamentally a system of social norms—a very successful one, but far from the only possibility and perhaps not the best.

Thus, why does building more roads not solve the problem of rush hour? Because we have a social norm that says we are all supposed to start work at 09:00 and end work at 17:00.
And that, dear readers, is what we must endeavor to change. Change our thinking, and we will change the norms. Change the norms, and we will change the world.

Tax incidence revisited, part 5: Who really pays the tax?

JDN 2457359

I think all the pieces are now in place to really talk about tax incidence.

In earlier posts I discussed how taxes have important downsides, then talked about how taxes can distort prices, then explained that taxes are actually what gives money its value. In the most recent post in the series, I used supply and demand curves to show precisely how taxes create deadweight loss.

Now at last I can get to the fundamental question: Who really pays the tax?

The common-sense answer would be that whoever writes the check to the government pays the tax, but this is almost completely wrong. It is right about one aspect, a sort of political economy notion, which is that if there is any trouble collecting the tax, it’s generally that person who is on the hook to pay it. But especially in First World countries, most taxes are collected successfully almost all the time. Tax avoidance—using loopholes to reduce your tax burden—is all over the place, but tax evasion—illegally refusing to pay the tax you owe—is quite rare. And for this political economy argument to hold, you really need significant amounts of tax evasion and enforcement against it.

The real economic answer is that the person who pays the tax is the person who bears the loss in surplus. In essence, the person who bears the tax is the person who is most unhappy about it.

In the previous post in this series, I explained what surplus is, but it bears a brief repetition. Surplus is the value you get from purchases you make, in excess of the price you paid to get them. It’s measured in dollars, because that way we can read it right off the supply and demand curve. We should actually be adjusting for marginal utility of wealth and measuring in QALY, but that’s a lot harder so it rarely gets done.

In the graphs I drew in part 4, I already talked about how the deadweight loss is much greater if supply and demand are elastic than if they are inelastic. But in those graphs I intentionally set it up so that the elasticities of supply and demand were about the same. What if they aren’t?

Consider what happens if supply is very inelastic, but demand is very elastic. In fact, to keep it simple, lets suppose that supply is perfectly inelastic, but demand is perfectly elastic. This means that supply elasticity is 0, but demand elasticity is infinite.

The zero supply elasticity means that the worker would actually be willing to work up to their maximum hours for nothing, but is unwilling to go above that regardless of the wage. They have a specific amount of hours they want to work, regardless of what they are paid.

The infinite demand elasticity means that each hour of work is worth exactly the same amount the employer, with no diminishing returns. They have a specific wage they are willing to pay, regardless of how many hours it buys.

Both of these are quite extreme; it’s unlikely that in real life we would ever have an elasticity that is literally zero or infinity. But we do actually see elasticities that get very low or very high, and qualitatively they act the same way.

So let’s suppose as before that the wage is $20 and the number of hours worked is 40. The supply and demand graph actually looks a little weird: There is no consumer surplus whatsoever.

incidence_infinite_notax_surplus

Each hour is worth $20 to the employer, and that is what they shall pay. The whole graph is full of producer surplus; the worker would have been willing to work for free, but instead gets $20 per hour for 40 hours, so they gain a whopping $800 in surplus.

incidence_infinite_tax_surplus

Now let’s implement a tax, say 50% to make it easy. (That’s actually a huge payroll tax, and if anybody ever suggested implementing that I’d be among the people pulling out a Laffer curve to show them why it’s a bad idea.)

Normally a tax would push the demand wage higher, but in this case $20 is exactly what they can afford, so they continue to pay exactly the same as if nothing had happened. This is the extreme example in which your “pre-tax” wage is actually your pre-tax wage, what you’d get if there hadn’t been a tax. This is the only such example—if demand elasticity is anything less than infinity, the wage you see listed as “pre-tax” will in fact be higher than what you’d have gotten in the absence of the tax.

The tax revenue is therefore borne entirely by the worker; they used to take home $20 per hour, but now they only get $10. Their new surplus is only $400, precisely 40% lower. The extra $400 goes directly to the government, which makes this example unusual in another way: There is no deadweight loss. The employer is completely unaffected; their surplus goes from zero to zero. No surplus is destroyed, only moved. Surplus is simply redistributed from the worker to the government, so the worker bears the entirety of the tax. Note that this is true regardless of who actually writes the check; I didn’t even have to include that in the model. Once we know that there was a tax imposed on each hour of work, the market prices decided who would bear the burden of that tax.

By Jove, we’ve actually found an example in which it’s fair to say “the government is taking my hard-earned money!” (I’m fairly certain if you replied to such people with “So you think your supply elasticity is zero but your employer’s demand elasticity is infinite?” you would be met with blank stares or worse.)

This is however quite an extreme case. Let’s try a more realistic example, where supply elasticity is very small, but not zero, and demand elasticity is very high, but not infinite. I’ve made the demand elasticity -10 and the supply elasticity 0.5 for this example.

incidence_supply_notax_surplus

Before the tax, the wage was $20 for 40 hours of work. The worker received a producer surplus of $700. The employer received a consumer surplus of only $80. The reason their demand is so elastic is that they are only barely getting more from each hour of work than they have to pay.

Total surplus is $780.

incidence_supply_tax_surplus

After the tax, the number of hours worked has dropped to 35. The “pre-tax” (demand) wage has only risen to $20.25. The after-tax (supply) wage the worker actually receives has dropped all the way to $10. The employer’s surplus has only fallen to $65.63, a decrease of $14.37 or 18%. Meanwhile the worker’s surplus has fallen all the way to $325, a decrease of $275 or 46%. The employer does feel the tax, but in both absolute and relative terms, the worker feels the tax much more than the employer does.

The tax revenue is $358.75, which means that the total surplus has been reduced to $749.38. There is now $30.62 of deadweight loss. Where both elasticities are finite and nonzero, deadweight loss is basically inevitable.

In this more realistic example, the burden was shared somewhat, but it still mostly fell on the worker, because the worker had a much lower elasticity. Let’s try turning the tables and making demand elasticity low while supply elasticity is high—in fact, once again let’s illustrate by using the extreme case of zero versus infinity.

In order to do this, I need to also set a maximum wage the employer is willing to pay. With nonzero elasticity, that maximum sort of came out automatically when the demand curve hits zero; but when elasticity is zero, the line is parallel so it never crosses. Let’s say in this case that the maximum is $50 per hour.

(Think about why we didn’t need to set a minimum wage for the worker when supply was perfectly inelastic—there already was a minimum, zero.)

incidence_infinite2_notax_surplus

This graph looks deceptively similar to the previous; basically all that has happened is the supply and demand curves have switched places, but that makes all the difference. Now instead of the worker getting all the surplus, it’s the employer who gets all the surplus. At their maximum wage of $50, they are getting $1200 in surplus.

Now let’s impose that same 50% tax again.

incidence_infinite2_tax_surplus

The worker will not accept any wage less than $20, so the demand wage must rise all the way to $40. The government will then receive $800 in revenue, while the employer will only get $400 in surplus. Notice again that the deadweight loss is zero. The employer will now bear the entire burden of the tax.

In this case the “pre-tax” wage is basically meaningless; regardless of the value of the tax the worker would receive the same amount, and the “pre-tax” wage is really just an accounting mechanism the government uses to say how large the tax is. They could just as well have said, “Hey employer, give us $800!” and the outcome would be the same. This is called a lump-sum tax, and they don’t work in the real world but are sometimes used for comparison. The thing about a lump-sum tax is that it doesn’t distort prices in any way, so in principle you could use it to redistribute wealth however you want. But in practice, there’s no way to implement a lump-sum tax that would be large enough to raise sufficient revenue but small enough to be affordable by the entire population. Also, a lump-sum tax is extremely regressive, hurting the poor tremendously while the rich feel nothing. (Actually the closest I can think of to a realistic lump-sum tax would be a basic income, which is essentially a negative lump-sum tax.)

I could keep going with more examples, but the basic argument is the same.

In general what you will find is that the person who bears a tax is the person who has the most to lose if less of that good is sold. This will mean their supply or demand is very inelastic and their surplus is very large.

Inversely, the person who doesn’t feel the tax is the person who has the least to lose if the good stops being sold. That will mean their supply or demand is very elastic and their surplus is very small.
Once again, it really does not matter how the tax is collected. It could be taken entirely from the employer, or entirely from the worker, or shared 50-50, or 60-40, or whatever. As long as it actually does get paid, the person who will actually feel the tax depends upon the structure of the market, not the method of tax collection. Raising “employer contributions” to payroll taxes won’t actually make workers take any more home; their “pre-tax” wages will simply be adjusted downward to compensate. Likewise, raising the “employee contribution” won’t actually put more money in the pockets of the corporation, it will just force them to raise wages to avoid losing employees. The actual amount that each party must contribute to the tax isn’t based on how the checks are written; it’s based on the elasticities of the supply and demand curves.

And that’s why I actually can’t get that strongly behind corporate taxes; even though they are formally collected from the corporation, they could simply be hurting customers or employees. We don’t actually know; we really don’t understand the incidence of corporate taxes. I’d much rather use income taxes or even sales taxes, because we understand the incidence of those.

Tax incidence revisited, part 4: Surplus and deadweight loss

JDN 2457355

I’ve already mentioned the fact that taxation creates deadweight loss, but in order to understand tax incidence it’s important to appreciate exactly how this works.

Deadweight loss is usually measured in terms of total economic surplus, which is a strange and deeply-flawed measure of value but relatively easy to calculate.

Surplus is based upon the concept of willingness-to-pay; the value of something is determined by the maximum amount of money you would be willing to pay for it.

This is bizarre for a number of reasons, and I think the most important one is that people differ in how much wealth they have, and therefore in their marginal utility of wealth. $1 is worth more to a starving child in Ghana than it is to me, and worth more to me than it is to a hedge fund manager, and worth more to a hedge fund manager than it is to Bill Gates. So when you try to set what something is worth based on how much someone will pay for it, which someone are you using?

People also vary, of course, in how much real value a good has to them: Some people like dark chocolate, some don’t. Some people love spicy foods and others despise them. Some people enjoy watching sports, others would rather read a book. A meal is worth a lot more to you if you haven’t eaten in days than if you just ate half an hour ago. That’s not actually a problem; part of the point of a market economy is to distribute goods to those who value them most. But willingness-to-pay is really the product of two different effects: The real effect, how much utility the good provides you; and the wealth effect, how your level of wealth affects how much you’d pay to get the same amount of utility. By itself, willingness-to-pay has no means of distinguishing these two effects, and actually I think one of the deepest problems with capitalism is that ultimately capitalism has no means of distinguishing these two effects. Products will be sold to the highest bidder, not the person who needs it the most—and that’s why Americans throw away enough food to end world hunger.

But for today, let’s set that aside. Let’s pretend that willingness-to-pay is really a good measure of value. One thing that is really nice about it is that you can read it right off the supply and demand curves.

When you buy something, your consumer surplus is the difference between your willingness-to-pay and how much you actually did pay. If a sandwich is worth $10 to you and you pay $5 to get it, you have received $5 of consumer surplus.

When you sell something, your producer surplus is the difference between how much you were paid and your willingness-to-accept, which is the minimum amount of money you would accept to part with it. If making that sandwich cost you $2 to buy ingredients and $1 worth of your time, your willingness-to-accept would be $3; if you then sell it for $5, you have received $2 of producer surplus.

Total economic surplus is simply the sum of consumer surplus and producer surplus. One of the goals of an efficient market is to maximize total economic surplus.

Let’s return to our previous example, where a 20% tax raised the original wage from $22.50 and thus resulted in an after-tax wage of $18.

Before the tax, the supply and demand curves looked like this:

equilibrium_notax

Consumer surplus is the area below the demand curve, above the price, up to the total number of goods sold. The basic reasoning behind this is that the demand curve gives the willingness-to-pay for each good, which decreases as more goods are sold because of diminishing marginal utility. So what this curve is saying is that the first hour of work was worth $40 to the employer, but each following hour was worth a bit less, until the 10th hour of work was only worth $35. Thus the first hour gave $40-$20 = $20 of surplus, while the 10th hour only gave $35-$20 = $15 of surplus.

Producer surplus is the area above the supply curve, below the price, again up to the total number of goods sold. The reasoning is the same: If the first hour of work cost $5 worth of time but the 10th hour cost $10 worth of time, the first hour provided $20-$5 = $15 in producer surplus, but the 10th hour only provided $20-$10 = $10 in producer surplus.

Imagine drawing a little 1-pixel-wide line straight down from the demand curve to the price for each hour and then adding up all those little lines into the total area under the curve, and similarly drawing little 1-pixel-wide lines straight up from the supply curve.

surplus

The employer was paying $20 * 40 = $800 for an amount of work that they actually valued at $1200 (the total area under the demand curve up to 40 hours), so they benefit by $400. The worker was being paid $800 for an amount of work that they would have been willing to accept $480 to do (the total area under the supply curve up to 40 hours), so they benefit $320. The sum of these is the total surplus $720.

equilibrium_notax_surplus

After the tax, the employer is paying $22.50 * 35 = $787.50, but for an amount of work that they only value at $1093.75, so their new surplus is only $306.25. The worker is receiving $18 * 35 = $630, for an amount of work they’d have been willing to accept $385 to do, so their new surplus is $245. Even when you add back in the government revenue of $4.50 * 35 = $157.50, the total surplus is still only $708.75. What happened to that extra $11.25 of value? It simply disappeared. It’s gone. That’s what we mean by “deadweight loss”. That’s why there is a downside to taxation.

equilibrium_tax_surplus

How large the deadweight loss is depends on the precise shape of the supply and demand curves, specifically on how elastic they are. Remember that elasticity is the proportional change in the quantity sold relative to the change in price. If increasing the price 1% makes you want to buy 2% less, you have a demand elasticity of -2. (Some would just say “2”, but then how do we say it if raising the price makes you want to buy more? The Law of Demand is more like what you’d call a guideline.) If increasing the price 1% makes you want to sell 0.5% more, you have a supply elasticity of 0.5.

If supply and demand are highly elastic, deadweight loss will be large, because even a small tax causes people to stop buying and selling a large amount of goods. If either supply or demand is inelastic, deadweight loss will be small, because people will more or less buy and sell as they always did regardless of the tax.

I’ve filled in the deadweight loss with brown in each of these graphs. They are designed to have the same tax rate, and the same price and quantity sold before the tax.

When supply and demand are elastic, the deadweight loss is large:

equilibrium_elastic_tax_surplus

But when supply and demand are inelastic, the deadweight loss is small:

equilibrium_inelastic_tax_surplus

Notice that despite the original price and the tax rate being the same, the tax revenue is also larger in the case of inelastic supply and demand. (The total surplus is also larger, but it’s generally thought that we don’t have much control over the real value and cost of goods, so we can’t generally make something more inelastic in order to increase total surplus.)

Thus, all other things equal, it is better to tax goods that are inelastic, because this will raise more tax revenue while producing less deadweight loss.

But that’s not all that elasticity does!

At last, the end of our journey approaches: In the next post in this series, I will explain how elasticity affects who actually ends up bearing the burden of the tax.