The Race to the Bottom is not inevitable

Jul 19 JDN 2459050

The race to the bottom is a common result of competition, between firms, between states, or even between countries. One firm finds a way to cut corners and reduce costs, then lowers their price to undercut others; then soon every firm is cutting those same corners. Or one country decides to weaken their regulations in order to attraction more business; then soon every other country has to weaken their regulations as well.

Let’s first consider individual firms. Suppose that you run a business, and you are an upstanding, ethical person. You want to treat your employees, your customers, and your community well. You have high labor standards, you exceed the requirements of environmental regulations, and you make a high-quality product at a reasonable price for a moderate profit.

Then, a competitor appears. The owner of this company is not so ethical. They exploit their workers, perhaps even stealing their wages. They flaunt environmental regulations. They make shoddy products. All of this allows them to make their products for a lower price than yours.

Suppose that most customers can’t tell the difference between your product and theirs. What will happen? They will stop buying yours, because it’s more expensive. What do you do then?

You could simply go out of business. But that doesn’t really solve anything. Probably you’ll be forced to lower your standards. You’ll treat your workers worse, pollute more, reduce product quality. You may not do so as much as the other company, but you’ll have to do it some in order to get the price down low enough to still compete. And your profits will be lower than theirs as a result.

Far better would be for the government to step in and punish that other business for breaking the rules—or if what they’re doing is technically legal, change the rules so that it’s not anymore. Then you could continue to produce high-quality products with fair labor standards and good environmental sustainability.

But there are some problems with this. First, consider this from the point of view of a regulator, who is being lobbied by both companies. Your company asks for higher standards to improve product quality while protecting workers and the environment. But theirs claims that these higher standards will push them out of business. Who will they believe?

In fact, it may be worse than that: Suppose we’ve already settled into an equilibrium where all the firms have low standards. In that case, all the lobbyists will be saying that regulations need to be kept weak, lest the whole industry fail.

But in fact there’s no reason to think that stricter regulations would actually destroy the whole industry. Firm owners are used to thinking in terms of fixed competitors: They act in response to what competitors do. And in many cases it’s actually true that if just one firm tried to raise their standards, they would be outcompeted and go out of business. This does not mean that if all firms were forced to raise their standards, the industry would collapse. In fact, it’s much more likely that stricter regulations would only moderately reduce output and profits, if imposed consistently across the whole industry.

To see why, let’s consider a very simple model, a Bertrand competition game. There are two firms, A and B. Each can either use process H, producing a product of high quality with high labor standards and good sustainability, or use process L, producing a product of low quality with low labor standards and poor sustainability. Process H costs $100 per unit, process L costs $50 per unit. Customers can’t tell the difference, so they will buy whichever product is offered at the lowest price. Let’s say you are in charge of firm A. You choose which process to use, and set your price. At the same time, firm B chooses a process and sets their price.

Suppose choose to use process H. The lowest possible price you could charge to still make a profit would be a price of $101 (ignoring cents; let’s say customers also ignore them, which might be true!).

But firm B could choose process L, and then set a price of $100. They can charge just one dollar less than you charge for their product, but their cost is only $50, so now they are making a large profit—and you get nothing.

So you are forced to lower your standards, in order to match their price. You could try to undercut them at a price of $100, but in the long run that’s a bad idea, since eventually you’ll both be driven to charging a price of 51 and making only a very small profit. And there’s a way to stop them from undercutting you, which is to offer a price-matching guarantee; you can tell your customers that if they see a lower price from firm B than what you’re offering, you’ll match it for them. Then firm B has no incentive to try to undercut you, and you can maintain a stable equilibrium at a price of $100. You have been forced to used process L even though you know it is worse, because any attempt to unilaterally deviate from that industry norm would result in your company going bankrupt.

But now suppose the government comes in and mandates that all firms use process H, and they really enforce this rule so that no firm wants to try to break it. Then you’d want to raise the price, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to raise it all that much. Even $101 would be enough to ensure some profit, and you could even maintain your current profits by raising the price up to $150. In reality the result would probably be somewhere in between those two, depending on the elasticity of demand; so perhaps you end up charging $125 and make half the profit you did before.

Even though the new regulation raised costs all the way up to the current price, they did not result in collapsing the industry; because the rule was enforced uniformly, all firms were able to raise their standards and also raise their prices. This is what we should typically expect to happen; so any time someone claims that a new regulation will “destroy the industry” we should be very skeptical of that claim. (It’s not impossible; for instance, a regulation mandating that all fast food workers be paid $200 per hour would surely collapse the fast food industry. But it’s very unlikely that anyone would seriously propose a regulation like that.)

So as long as you have a strong government in place, you can escape the race to the bottom. But then we must consider international competition: What if other countries have weaker regulations, and so firms want to move their production to those other countries?

Well, a small country may actually be forced to lower their standards in order to compete. I’m not sure there’s much that Taiwan or Singapore could do to enforce higher labor standards. If Taiwan decided to tighten all their labor regulations, firms might just move their production to Indonesia or Vietnam. Then again, monthly incomes in Taiwan, once adjusted for currency exchange rates, are considerably higher than those in Vietnam. Indeed, wages in Taiwan aren’t much lower than wages in the US. So apparently Taiwan has some power to control their own labor standards—perhaps due to their highly educated population and strong industrial infrastructure.

However, a large country like the US or China absolutely has more power than that. If the US wants to enforce stricter labor standards, they can simply impose tariffs on countries that don’t. Actually there are many free-trade rules in place precisely to reduce that power, because it can be easily abused in the service of protectionism.

Perhaps these rules go too far; while I agree with the concern about protectionism, I definitely think we should be doing more to enforce penalties for forced labor, for instance. But this is not the result of too little international governance—if anything it is the result of too much. Our free trade agreements are astonishingly binding, even on the most powerful countries (China has successfully sued the United States under WTO rules!). I wish only that our human rights charters were anywhere near as well enforced.

This means that the race to the bottom is not the inevitable result of competition between firms or even between countries. When it occurs, it is the result of particular policy regimes nationally or internationally. We can make better rules.

The first step may be to stop listening to the people who say that any change will “destroy the industry” because they are unable (or unwilling?) to understand how uniformly-imposed rules differ from unilateral deviations from industry norms.

The fable of the billionaires

May 31 JDN 2458999

There are great many distortions in real-world markets that cause them to deviate from the ideal of perfectly competitive free markets, and economists rightfully spend much of their time locating, analyzing, and mitigating such distortions.

But I think there is a general perception among economists, and perhaps among others as well, that if we could somehow make markets perfectly competitive and efficient, we’d be done; the world, or at least the market, would be just and fair and all would be good. And this perception is gravely mistaken. To make that clear to you, I offer a little fable.

Once upon a time, widgets were made by hand. One person, working for one eight-hour day, could make 100 widgets. Most people were employed making widgets full-time. The wage for making widgets was $1 per widget.

Then, an inventor came up with a way to automate the production of widgets. For $100 per day, the same cost to hire a worker to make 100 widgets, the machine could instead make 101 widgets.

Because it was 1% more efficient, businesses began adopting the new machine, and now made slightly more widgets than before. But some workers who had previously made widgets were laid off, while others saw their wages fall to only $0.99 per widget.

If there were more widgets, but fewer people were getting paid less to make them, where did the extra wealth go? To the inventor, of course, who now owns 10% of all widget production and has billions of dollars.

Later, another inventor came up with an even better machine, which could make 102 widgets in a day. And that inventor became a billionare too, while more became unemployed and wages fell to $0.98 per widget.

And then there was another inventor, and another, and another; and today the machines can make 200 widgets in a day and wages are only $0.50 per widget. We now have twice as many widgets as we used to have, and hundreds of billionaires; yet only half as many people now work making widgets as once did, and those who remain make only half of what they once did.

Was this market inefficient or uncompetitive? Not at all! In fact it was quite efficient: It delivered the most widgets for the least cost every step of the way. And the first round of billionaires didn’t get enough power to keep the next round from innovating even better and also becoming billionaires. No one stole or cheated to get where they are; the billionaires really made it to the top by being brilliant innovators who made the world more efficient.

Indeed, by the standard measures of economic surplus, the world has gotten better with each new machine. GDP has gone up, wealth has gone up. Yet millions of people are out of work, and millions more are making pitifully low wages. Overall the nation seems to be worse off, even though all the numbers keep saying things are getting better.

There are some relatively simple solutions to this problem: We could tax those billionaires, and use the money to provide public goods to everyone else; and then the added wealth from doubling our quantity of widgets would benefit everyone and not just the inventors who made it happen. Would that reduce the incentives to innovate? A little, perhaps; but it’s hard to believe that most people who would be willing to invent something for $1 billion wouldn’t be willing to do so for $500 million or even for $50 million. At some point that extra money really isn’t benefiting you all that much. And what’s the point of incentivizing innovation if it makes life worse for most of our population?

In the real world there are lots of other problems, of course. Corruption, regulatory capture, rent-seeking, collusion, and so on all make our markets less efficient than they could have been. But even if markets were efficient, it’s not clear that they would be fair or just, or that they would be making most people’s lives better.

Indeed, I’m not convinced that most billionaires really got where they are by being particularly innovative. I can appreciate the innovations made by Cisco and Microsoft, but what brilliant innovation underlies Facebook or Amazon? The Internet itself is a great innovation (largely created by DARPA and universities), but is using it to talk to people or sell things really such a great leap? Tesla and SpaceX are innovative, but they have largely been money pits for Elon Musk, who inherited a good chunk of his wealth and made most of the rest by owning shares in PayPal. Yet even if we suppose that all the billionaires got where they are by inventing things that made the economy more efficient, it’s still not clear that they deserve to keep that staggering wealth.

I think the fundamental problem is that we have mentally equated ‘value of marginal product’ with ‘what you rightfully earn’. But the former is dependent upon the rest of the market: Who you are competing with, what your customers want. You can work very hard and be very talented, but if you’re making something that people aren’t willing to pay for, you won’t make any money. And the fact that people won’t pay for something doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable: If you produce public goods, they could benefit many people a great deal but still not draw in profits. Conversely, the fact that something is profitable doesn’t necessarily make it valuable: It could just be a very effective method of rent-seeking.

I’m not saying we should do away with markets; they’re very useful, and they do have a lot of benefits. But we should acknowledge their limitations. We should be aware not only that real-world markets are not perfectly efficient, but also that even a perfectly efficient market wouldn’t make for the best possible world.

Glorifying superstars glorifies excessive risk

Apr 26 JDN 2458964

Suppose you were offered the choice of the following two gambles; which one would you take?

Gamble A: 99.9% chance of $0; 0.1% chance of $100 million

Gamble B: 10% chance of $50,000; 80% chance of $100,000; 10% chance of $1 million

I think it’s pretty clear that you should choose gamble B.

If you were risk-neutral, the expected payoffs would be $100,000 for gamble A and $185,000 for gamble B. So clearly gamble B is the better deal.

But you’re probably risk-averse. If you have logarithmic utility with a baseline and current wealth of $10,000, the difference is even larger:

0.001*ln(10001) = 0.009

0.1*ln(6) + 0.8*ln(11) + 0.1*ln(101) = 2.56

Yet suppose this is a gamble that a lot of people get to take. And furthermore suppose that what you read about in the news every day is always the people who are the very richest. Then you will read, over and over again, about people who took gamble A and got lucky enough to get the $100 million. You’d probably start to wonder if maybe you should be taking gamble A instead.

This is more or less the world we live in. A handful of billionaires own staggering amounts of wealth, and we are constantly hearing about them. Even aside from the fact that most of them inherited a large portion of it and all of them had plenty of advantages that most of us will never have, it’s still not clear that they were actually smart about taking the paths they did—it could simply be that they got spectacularly lucky.

Or perhaps there’s an even clearer example: Professional athletes. The vast majority of athletes make basically no money at sports. Even most paid athletes are in minor leagues and make only a modest living.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being an amateur who plays sports for fun. But if you were to invest a large proportion of your time training in sports in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, you would most likely find yourself gravely disappointed, as your chances of actually getting into the major leagues and becoming a multi-millionaire are exceedingly small. Yet you can probably name at least a few major league athletes who are multi-millionaires—perhaps dozens, if you’re a serious fan—and I doubt you can name anywhere near as many minor league players or players who never made it into paid leagues in the first place.

When we spend all of our time focused on the superstars, what we are effectively assessing is the maximum possible income available on a given career track. And it’s true; the maximum for professional athletes and especially entrepreneurs is extremely high. But the maximum isn’t what you should care about; you should really be concerned about the average or even the median.

And it turns out that the same professions that offer staggeringly high incomes at the very top also tend to be professions with extremely high risk attached. The average income for an athlete is very small; the median is almost certainly zero. Entrepreneurs do better; their average and median income aren’t too much worse than most jobs. But this moderate average comes with a great deal of risk; yes, you could become a billionaire—but far more likely, you could become bankrupt.

This is a deeply perverse result: The careers that our culture most glorifies, the ones that we inspire people to dream about, are precisely those that are the most likely to result in financial ruin.

Realizing this changes your perspective on a lot of things. For instance, there is a common lament that teachers aren’t paid the way professional athletes are. I for one am extremely grateful that this is the case. If teachers were paid like athletes, yes, 0.1% would be millionaires, but only 4.9% would make a decent living, and the remaining 95% would be utterly broke. Indeed, this is precisely what might happen if MOOCs really take off, and a handful of superstar teachers are able to produce all the content while the vast majority of teaching mostly amounts to showing someone else’s slideshows. Teachers are much better off in a world where they almost all make a decent living even though none of them ever get spectacularly rich. (Are many teachers still underpaid? Sure. How do I know this? Because there are teacher shortages. A chronic shortage of something is a surefire sign that its price is too low.) And clearly the idea that we could make all teachers millionaires is just ludicrous: Do you want to pay $1 million a year for your child’s education?

Is there a way that we could change this perverse pattern? Could we somehow make it feel more inspiring to choose a career that isn’t so risky? Well, I doubt we’ll ever get children to dream of being accountants or middle managers. But there are a wide range of careers that are fulfilling and meaningful while still making a decent living—like, well, teaching. Even working in creative arts can be like this: While very few authors are millionaires, the median income for an author is quite respectable. (On the other hand there’s some survivor bias here: We don’t count you as an author if you can’t get published at all.) Software engineers are generally quite satisfied with their jobs, and they manage to get quite high incomes with low risk. I think the real answer here is to spend less time glorifying obscene hoards of wealth and more time celebrating lives that are rich and meaningful.

I don’t know if Jeff Bezos is truly happy. But I do know that you and I are more likely to be happy if instead of trying to emulate him, we focus on making our own lives meaningful.

Monopsony is all around us

Mar 15 JDN 2458924

Perhaps because of the board game (the popularity of which honestly baffles me; it’s really not a very good game!), the concept of monopoly is familiar to most people: A market with one seller and many buyers can command high prices and high profits for the seller.

But the opposite situation, a market with many sellers and one buyer, is equally problematic, yet far less well-known. This is called monopsony. Whereas in a monopoly prices are too high, in a monopsony prices are too low.

I have long suspected, but the data now confirms, that the most widespread form of monopsony occurs in labor markets. This is a particularly bad place for monopsony, because it means that instead of consumer prices being lower, wages will be lower. Monopsonistic labor markets are bad in two ways: They lower wages and they increase unemployment.

Monopsonistic labor markets are one of the reasons why raising minimum wage seems to have very little effect on employment.
In the presence of monopsony, forcing employers to increase wages won’t cause them to fire workers; it will just eat into their profits. In some cases it can actually cause them to hire more workers.

Take a look at this map, from the Roosevelt Institute:


This map is color-coded by commuting zone, based on whether the average labor market (different labor markets weighted by their number of employees) is monopsonistic. Commuting zones with only a few major employers are colored red, while those with many employers are colored green. In between are shaded orange and yellow. (Not a very colorblind-friendly coding scheme, I’m afraid.)

Basically you can see that the only places where labor markets are not monopsonistic are in major metro areas. Suburban areas are typically yellow, and rural areas are almost all orange or red.

It seems then that we have two choices for where we want to live: We can
live in rural areas and have monopsonistic labor markets with low wages and competitive real estate markets with low housing prices, or we can live in urban areas and have competitive labor markets with high wages and monopolistic real estate markets with high housing prices. There’s hardly anywhere we can live where both wages and housing prices are fair.

Actually the best seems to be Detroit! Median housing price in the Detroit area is an affordable $179,000, while median household income is a low but not terrible $31,000. This means you can pay off a house spending 30% of your income in about 10 years. That’s the American Dream, right there.

Compare this to the San Francisco area, where median housing price is $1.1 million and median income is an impressive $104,000. This means it would take over 35 years to pay off your house spending 30% of your income. (And that’s not accounting for interest!) You can make six figures in San Francisco and still be considered “low income”, because housing prices there are so absurd.

Of course, student loans are denominated in nominal terms, so you might actually be able to pay off your student loans faster living in San Francisco than you could in Detroit. Say taxes are 20%, so these become after-tax incomes of $25,000 and $83,000. Even if you spend only a third of your income on housing in Detroit and spend two-thirds in San Francisco, that leaves you with $16,600 in Detroit but $27,600 in San Francisco. Of course other prices are different too, but it seems quite likely that being able to pay $5,000 per year on your student loans is easier living in San Francisco than it is in Detroit.

What can be done about monopsony in labor markets? First, we could try to split up employers—the FTC already doesn’t do enough to break up monopolies, but it basically does nothing to break up monopsonies. But that may not always be feasible, particularly in rural areas. And there are genuine economies of scale that can make larger firms more efficient in certain ways; we don’t want to lose those.

Perhaps the best solution is the one we used to use, and most of the First World continues to use: Labor unions. Union membership in the US declined by half in the last 30 years. Europe is heavily unionized, and the most unionized of all are Scandinavian countries—probably not a coincidence that these are the most prosperous places in the world.

At first glance, labor unions seem anti-competitive: They act like a monopoly. But when you currently have a
monopsony, adding a monopoly can actually be a good thing. Instead of one seller and many buyers, resulting in prices that are too low, you can have one seller and one buyer, resulting in prices that are negotiated and can, at least potentially, be much fairer. This market structure is called a bilateral monopoly, and while it’s not as good as perfect competition, it’s considerably more efficient than either monopsony or monopoly alone.

The cost of illness

Feb 2 JDN 2458882

As I write this I am suffering from some sort of sinus infection, most likely some strain of rhinovirus. So far it has just been basically a bad cold, so there isn’t much to do aside from resting and waiting it out. But it did get me thinking about healthcare—we’re so focused on the costs of providing it that we often forget the costs of not providing it.

The United States is the only First World country without a universal healthcare system. It is not a coincidence that we also have some of the highest rates of preventable mortality and burden of disease.

We in the United States spend about $3.5 trillion per year on healthcare, the most of any country in the world, even as a proportion of GDP. Yet this is not the cost of disease; this is how much we were willing to pay to avoid the cost of disease. Whatever harm that would have been caused without all that treatment must actually be worth more than $3.5 trillion to us—because we paid that much to avoid it.

Globally, the disease burden is about 30,000 disability-adjusted life-years (DALY) per 100,000 people per year—that is to say, the average person is about 30% disabled by disease. I’ve spoken previously about quality-adjusted life years (QALY); the two measures take slightly different approaches to the same overall goal, and are largely interchangeable for most purposes.

Of course this result relies upon the disability weights; it’s not so obvious how we should be comparing across different conditions. How many years would you be willing to trade of normal life to avoid ten years of Alzheimer’s? But it’s probably not too far off to say that if we could somehow wave a magic wand and cure all disease, we would really increase our GDP by something like 30%. This would be over $6 trillion in the US, and over $26 trillion worldwide.

Of course, we can’t actually do that. But we can ask what kinds of policies are most likely to promote health in a cost-effective way.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest improvements to be made are in the poorest countries, where it can be astonishingly cheap to improve health. Malaria prevention has a cost of around $30 per DALY—by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation you can buy a year of life for less than the price of a new video game. Compare this to the standard threshold in the US of $50,000 per QALY: Targeting healthcare in the poorest countries can increase cost-effectiveness a thousandfold. In humanitarian terms, it would be well worth diverting spending from our own healthcare to provide public health interventions in poor countries. (Fortunately, we have even better options than that, like raising taxes on billionaires or diverting military spending instead.)

We in the United States spend about twice as much (per person per year) on healthcare as other First World countries. Are our health outcomes twice as good? Clearly not. Are they any better at all? That really isn’t clear. We certainly don’t have a particularly high life expectancy. We spend more on administrative costs than we do on preventative care—unlike every other First World country except Australia. Almost all of our drugs and therapies are more expensive here than they are everywhere else in the world.

The obvious answer here is to make our own healthcare system more like those of other First World countries. There are a variety of universal health care systems in the world that we could model ourselves on, ranging from the single-payer government-run system in the UK to the universal mandate system of Switzerland. The amazing thing is that it almost doesn’t matter which one we choose: We could copy basically any other First World country and get better healthcare for less spending. Obamacare was in many ways similar to the Swiss system, but we never fully implemented it and the Republicans have been undermining it every way they can. Under President Trump, they have made significant progress in undermining it, and as a result, there are now 3 million more Americans without health insurance than there were before Trump took office. The Republican Party is intentionally increasing the harm of disease.

The real cost of high rent

Jan 26 JDN 2458875

The average daily commute time in the United States is about 26 minutes each way—for a total of 52 minutes every weekday. Public transit commute times are substantially longer in most states than driving commute times: In California, the average driving commute is 28 minutes each way, while the average public transit commute is 51 minutes each way. Adding this up over 5 workdays per week, working 50 weeks per year, means that on average Americans spend over 216 hours each year commuting.

Median annual income in the US is about $33,000. Assuming about 2000 hours of work per year for a full-time job, that’s a wage of $16.50 per hour. This makes the total cost of commute time in the United States over $3500 per worker per year. Multiplied by a labor force of 205 million, this makes the total cost of commute time over $730 billion per year. That’s not even counting the additional carbon emissions and road fatalities. This is all pure waste. The optimal commute time is zero minutes; the closer we can get to that, the better. Telecommuting might finally make this a reality, at least for a large swath of workers. Already over 40% of US workers telecommute at least some of the time.

Let me remind you that it would cost about $200 billion per year to end world hunger. We could end world hunger three times over with the effort we currently waste in commute time.

Where is this cost coming from? Why are commutes so long? The answer is obvious: The rent is too damn high. People have long commutes because they can’t afford to live closer to where they work.

Almost half of all renter households in the US pay more than 30% of their income in rent—and 25% pay more than half of their income. The average household rent in the US is over $1400 per month, almost $17,000 per year—more than the per-capita GDP of China.

Not that buying a home solves the problem: In many US cities the price-to-rent ratio of homes is over 20 to 1, and in Manhattan and San Francisco it’s as high as 50 to 1. If you already bought your home years ago, this is great for you; for the rest of us, not so much. Interestingly, high rents seem to correlate with higher price-to-rent ratios, so it seems like purchase prices are responding even more to whatever economic pressure is driving up rents.

Overall about a third of all US consumer spending is on housing; out of our total consumption spending of $13 trillion, this means we are spending over $4 trillion per year on housing, about the GDP of Germany. Of course, some of this is actually worth spending: Housing costs a lot to build, and provides many valuable benefits.

What should we be spending on housing, if the housing market were competitive and efficient?

I think Chicago’s housing market looks fairly healthy. Homes there go for about $250,000, with prices that are relatively stable; and the price-to-rent ratio is about 20 to 1. Chicago is a large city with a population density of about 6,000 people per square kilometer, so it’s not as if I’m using a tiny rural town as my comparison. If the entire population of the United States were concentrated at the same density as the city of Chicago, we’d all fit in only 55,000 square kilometers—less than the area of West Virginia.
Compare this to the median housing price in California ($550,000), New York ($330,000), or Washington, D.C. ($630,000). There are metro areas with housing prices far above even this: In San Jose the median home price is $1.1 million. I find it very hard to believe that it is literally four times as hard to build homes in San Jose as it is in Chicago. Something is distorting that price—maybe it’s over-regulation, maybe it’s monopoly power, maybe it’s speculation—I’m not sure what exactly, but there’s definitely something out of whack here.

This suggests that a more efficient housing market would probably cut prices in California by 50% and prices in New York by 25%. Since about 40% of all spending in California is on housing, this price change would effectively free up 20% of California’s GDP—and 20% of $3 trillion is $600 billion per year. The additional 8% of New York’s GDP gets us another $130 billion, and we’re already at that $730 billion I calculated for the total cost of commuting, only considering New York and California alone.

This means that the total amount of waste—including both time and money—due to housing being too expensive probably exceeds $1.5 trillion per year. This is an enormous sum of money: We’re spending an Australia here. We could just about pay for a single-payer healthcare system with this.

Tithing makes quite a lot of sense

Dec 22 JDN 2458840

Christmas is coming soon, and it is a season of giving: Not only gifts to those we love, but also to charities that help people around the world. It’s a theme of some of our most classic Christmas stories, like A Christmas Carol. (I do have to admit: Scrooge really isn’t wrong for not wanting to give to some random charity without any chance to evaluate it. But I also get the impression he wasn’t giving a lot to evaluated charities either.) And people do really give more around this time of year: Charitable donation rates peak in November and December (though that may also have something to do with tax deductions).

Where should we give? This is not an easy question, but it’s one that we now have tools to answer: There are various independent charity evaluation agencies, like GiveWell and Charity Navigator, which can at least provide some idea of which charities are most cost-effective.

How much should we give? This question is a good deal harder.

Perhaps a perfect being would determine their own precise marginal utility of wealth, and the marginal utility of spending on every possible charity, and give of your wealth to the best possible charity up until those two marginal utilities are equal. Since $1 to UNICEF or the Against Malaria Foundation saves about 0.02 QALY, and (unless you’re a billionaire) you don’t have enough money to meaningfully affect the budget of UNICEF, you’d probably need to give until you are yourself at the UN poverty level of $1.90 per day.

I don’t know of anyone who does this. Even Peter Singer, who writes books that essentially tell us to do this, doesn’t do this. I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to do this. Indeed, I’m not even so sure that a perfect being would do it, since it would require destroying their own life and their own future potential.

How about we all give 10%? In other words, how about we tithe? Yes, it sounds arbitrary—because it is. It could just as well have been 8% or 11%. Perhaps one-tenth feels natural to a base-10 culture made of 10-fingered beings, and if we used a base-12 numeral system we’d think in terms of giving one-twelfth instead. But 10% feels reasonable to a lot of people, it has a lot of cultural support behind it already, and it has become a Schelling point for coordination on this otherwise intractable problem. We need to draw the line somewhere, and it might as well be there.

As Slate Star Codex put it:

It’s ten percent because that’s the standard decreed by Giving What We Can and the effective altruist community. Why should we believe their standard? I think we should believe it because if we reject it in favor of “No, you are a bad person unless you give all of it,” then everyone will just sit around feeling very guilty and doing nothing. But if we very clearly say “You have discharged your moral duty if you give ten percent or more,” then many people will give ten percent or more. The most important thing is having a Schelling point, and ten percent is nice, round, divinely ordained, and – crucially – the Schelling point upon which we have already settled. It is an active Schelling point. If you give ten percent, you can have your name on a nice list and get access to a secret forum on the Giving What We Can site which is actually pretty boring.

It’s ten percent because definitions were made for Man, not Man for definitions, and if we define “good person” in a way such that everyone is sitting around miserable because they can’t reach an unobtainable standard, we are stupid definition-makers. If we are smart definition-makers, we will define it in whichever way which makes it the most effective tool to convince people to give at least that much.

I think it would be also reasonable to adjust this proportion according to your household income. If you are extremely poor, give a token amount: Perhaps 1% or 2%. (As it stands, most poor people already give more than this, and most rich people give less.) If you are somewhat below the median household income, give a bit less: Perhaps 6% or 8%. (I currently give 8%; I plan to increase to 10% once I get a higher-paying job after graduation.) If you are somewhat above, give a bit more: Perhaps 12% or 15%. If you are spectacularly rich, maybe you should give as much as 25%.

Is 10% enough? Well, actually, if everyone gave, even 1% would probably be enough. The total GDP of the First World is about $40 trillion; 1% of that is $400 billion per year, which is more than enough to end world hunger. But since we know that not everyone will give, we need to adjust our standard upward so that those who do give will give enough. (There’s actually an optimization problem here which is basically equivalent to finding a monopoly’s profit-maximizing price.) And just ending world hunger probably isn’t enough; there is plenty of disease to cure, education to improve, research to do, and ecology to protect. If say a third of First World people give 10%, that would be about $1.3 trillion, which would be enough money to at least make a huge difference in all those areas.

You can decide for yourself where you think you should draw the line. But 10% is a pretty good benchmark, and above all—please, give something. If you give anything, you are probably already above average. A large proportion of people give nothing at all. (Only 24% of US tax returns include a charitable deduction—though, to be fair, a lot of us donate but don’t itemize deductions. Even once you account for that, only about 60% of US households give to charity in any given year.)

Migration holds together the American Dream

Sep 29 JDN 2458757

The United States is an exceptional country in many ways, some good (highest income), some bad (highest incarceration rate), and some mixed (largest military). But as you compare the US to other countries, one thing that will immediately strike you is how we are a nation of migrants.

I don’t just mean immigrants, people who moved to the country after being born here—though we certainly are also a country of immigrants. About 99% of the US population descends from immigrants, mostly European—there aren’t a lot of countries that can even say the majority of their population migrated from another continent. Over 45 million Americans are foreign-born, which is not only the highest in the world; it is almost one-fifth of all the immigrants in the world. We experience a net inflow of immigrants averaging over 1 million people per year, by far the highest in the world. Almost half of the increase in our workforce over the last decade was due to immigrants.

But the US is full of migration in another way, which may in fact be even more important: Internal migration, from country to city, from one city to another, or from one state to another. Every year, about 12.5% of Americans move somewhere; about 10% move to a different state. No other country even comes close to this level of internal migration. According to the US census, about two-thirds of moves are within the same county, and yet each year there are ten times as many Americans who moved to a different county as there are immigrants to the United States. There are more cross-state migrants to California and Texas alone than there are immigrants to the entire country. There are about as many people who move each year within the United States as there are foreign-born individuals total.

This internal migration is central to the high productivity of the American economy. Internal migration is central to the process of urbanization, which drives a great deal of economic development. It is not a coincidence that the United States is one of the world’s most urbanized countries as well as one of the richest, nor that the ranking of US states by urbanization and the ranking of US states by per-capita income look very much alike.


On average, increasing a state’s urbanization by 1 percentage point increases its average per-capita income by $270 per year (in chained 2009 dollars); since most of that increase is going to the people who actually moved, this means that the average income increase as a result of moving from the country to the city is likely over $20,000 per year. To put it another way, if Maine could become as urbanized as California, we would expect its per-capita income to increase from about $39,000 per year to about $54,000 per year—which is just about California’s per-capita income.

Indeed, migration is probably the one thing holding up our otherwise dismal level of income mobility, which still trails behind most other First World countries (and far behind Denmark and Norway, because #ScandinaviaIsBetter). Canada also does extremely well in terms of income mobility, and Canada also has a high rate of internal migration, with almost 1% of Canadians moving to a new province in any given year. Canada is probably what the US would look like with a European-style social safety net; our high internal migration rate might actually get us better income mobility than is currently achieved by say France or Germany.

Indeed, migration may be the main reason there is still some vestige of an American Dream. It’s not what it used to be, but it isn’t yet dead either. Two-thirds of American adults have more real (inflation-adjusted) income than their parents. Intergenerational income mobility in the US grew quickly in the 1940s and 1950s, grew more slowly in the 1960s and 1970s, and has been stagnant ever since. While the odds of moving to a different income bracket have remained stable, income inequality has increased over the last 40 years, which means that the differences between those brackets have become larger.

Why will no one listen to economists on rent control?

Sep 22 JDN 2458750

I am on the verge of planting my face into my desk, because California just implemented a statewide program of rent control. I understand the good intentions here; it is absolutely the case that housing in California is too expensive. There are castles in Spain cheaper than condos in California. But this is not the right solution. Indeed, it will almost certainly make the problem worse. Maybe housing prices won’t be too high; instead there simply won’t be enough homes and more people will live on the street. (It’s not a coincidence that the Bay Area has both some of the world’s tightest housing regulations and one of the highest rates of homelessness.)

There is some evidence that rent control can help keep tenants in their homes—but at the cost of reducing the overall housing supply. Most of the benefits of rent control actually fall upon the upper-middle-class, not the poor.

Price controls are in general a terrible way of intervening in the economy. Price controls are basically what destroyed Venezuela. In this case the ECON 101 argument is right: Put a cap on the price of something, and you will create a shortage of that thing. Always.

California makes this worse by including all sorts of additional regulations on housing construction. Some regulations are necessary—homes need to be safe to live in—but did we really need a “right to sunlight”? How important is “the feel of the city” compared to homelessness? Not every building needs its own parking! (That, at least, the state government seems to be beginning to understand.) And yes, we should be investing heavily in solar power, and rooftops are a decent place to put those solar panels; but you should be subsidizing solar panels, not mandating them and thereby adding the cost of solar panels to the price of every new building.

Of course, we can’t simply do nothing; we need to fix this housing crisis. But there are much better ways of doing so. Again the answer is to subsidize rather than regulate.

Here are some policy options for making housing more affordable:

  1. Give every person below a certain income threshold a one-time cash payment to help them pay for a down payment or first month’s rent. Gradually phase out the payment as their income increases in the same way as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  2. Provide a subsidy for new housing construction, with larger subsidies for buildings with smaller, more affordable apartments.
  3. Directly pay for the construction of new public housing.
  4. Relax zoning regulations to make construction less expensive.
  5. Redistribute income from the rich to the poor using progressive taxes and transfer payments. Housing crises are always and everywhere a problem of inequality.

Some of these would cost money, yes; we would probably need to raise taxes to pay for them. But rent control has costs too. We are already paying these costs, but instead of paying them in the form of taxes that can be concentrated on the rich, we pay them in the form of a housing crisis that hurts the poor most of all.

The weirdest thing about all this is that any economist would agree.

Economists can be a contentious bunch: It has been said that if you ask five economists a question, you’ll get five answers—six if one is from Harvard. Yet the consensus among economists against rent control is absolutely overwhelming. Analyses of journal articles and polls of eminent economists suggest that over 90% of economists, regardless of their other views or their political leanings, agree that rent control is a bad idea.

This is a staggering result: There are economists who think that almost all taxes and regulations are fundamentally evil and should all be removed, and economists who think that we need radical, immediate government intervention to prevent a global climate catastrophe. But they all agree that rent control is a bad idea.

Economists differ in their views about legacy college admissions, corporate antitrust, wealth taxes, corporate social responsibility, equal pay for women, income taxes, ranked-choice voting, the distributional effects of monetary policy, the relation between health and economic growth, minimum wage, and healthcare spending. They disagree about whether Christmas is a good thing! But they all agree that rent control is a bad idea.

We’re not likely to ever get a consensus much better than this in any social science. The economic case against rent control is absolutely overwhelming. Why aren’t policymakers listening to us?

I really would like to know. It’s not that economists have ignored the problem of housing affordability. We have suggested a variety of other solutions that would obviously be better than rent control—in fact, I just did, earlier in this post. Many of them would require tax money, yes—do you want to fix this problem, or not?

Maybe that’s it: Maybe policymakers don’t really care about making housing affordable. If they did, they’d be willing to bear the cost of raising taxes on millionaires in order to build more apartments and keep people from being homeless. But they want to seem like they care about making housing affordable, because they know their constituents care. So they use a policy that seems to make housing more affordable, even though it doesn’t actually work, because that policy also doesn’t affect the government budget (at least not obviously or directly—of course it still does indirectly). They want the political support of the poor, who think this will help them; and they also want the political support of the rich, who refuse to pay a cent more in taxes.

But it really makes me wonder what we as economists are even really doing: If the evidence is this clear and the consensus is this overwhelming, and policymakers still ignore us—then why even bother?

Billionaires bear the burden of proof

Sep 15 JDN 2458743

A king sits atop a golden throne, surrounded by a thousand stacks of gold coins six feet high. A hundred starving peasants beseech him for just one gold coin each, so that they might buy enough food to eat and clothes for the winter. The king responds: “How dare you take my hard-earned money!”

This is essentially the world we live in today. I really cannot emphasize enough how astonishingly, horrifically, mind-bogglingly rich billionares are. I am writing this sentence at 13:00 PDT on September 8, 2019. A thousand seconds ago was 12:43, about when I started this post. A million seconds ago was Wednesday, August 28. A billion seconds ago was 1987. I will be a billion seconds old this October.

Jeff Bezos has $170 billion. 170 billion seconds ago was a thousand years before the construction of the Great Pyramid. To get as much money as he has gaining one dollar per second (that’s $3600 an hour!), Jeff Bezos would have had to work for as long as human civilization has existed.

At a more sensible wage like $30 per hour (still better than most people get), how long would it take to amass $170 billion? Oh, just about 600,000 years—or about twice the length of time that Homo sapiens has existed on Earth.

How does this compare to my fictional king with a thousand stacks of gold? A typical gold coin is worth about $500, depending on its age and condition. Coins are about 2 millimeters thick. So a thousand stacks, each 2 meters high, would be about $500*1000*1000 = $500 million. This king isn’t even a billionaire! Jeff Bezos has three hundred times as much as him.

Coins are about 30 millimeters in diameter, so assuming they are packed in neat rows, these thousand stacks of gold coins would fill a square about 0.9 meters to a side—in our silly Imperial units, that’s 3 feet wide, 3 feet deep, 6 feet tall. If Jeff Bezo’s stock portfolio were liquidated into gold coins (which would require about 2% of the world’s entire gold supply and surely tank the market), the neat rows of coins stacked a thousand high would fill a square over 16 meters to a side—that’s a 50-foot-wide block of gold coins. Smaug’s hoard in The Hobbit was probably about the same amount of money as what Jeff Bezos has.

And yet, somehow there are still people who believe that he deserves this money, that he earned it, that to take even a fraction of it away would be a crime tantamount to theft or even slavery.

Their arguments can be quite seductive: How would you feel about the government taking your hard-earned money? Entrepreneurs are brilliant, dedicated, hard-working people; why shouldn’t they be rewarded? What crime do CEOs commit by selling products at low prices?

The way to cut through these arguments is to never lose sight of the numbers. In defense of a man who had $5 million or even $20 million, such an argument might make sense. I can imagine how someone could contribute enough to humanity to legitimately deserve $20 million. I can understand how a talented person might work hard enough to earn $5 million. But it’s simply not possible for any human being to be so brilliant, so dedicated, so hard-working, or make such a contribution to the world, that they deserve to have more dollars than there have been seconds since the Great Pyramid.

It’s not necessary to find specific unethical behaviors that brought a billionaire to where he (and yes, it’s nearly always he) is. They are generally there to be found: At best, one becomes a billionaire by sheer luck. Typically, one becomes a billionaire by exerting monopoly power. At worst, one can become a billionaire by ruthless exploitation or even mass murder. But it’s not our responsibility to point out a specific crime for every specific billionaire.

The burden of proof is on billionaires: Explain how you can possibly deserve that much money.

It’s not enough to point to some good things you did, or emphasize what a bold innovator you are: You need to explain what you did that was so good that it deserves to be rewarded with Smaug-level hoards of wealth. Did you save the world from a catastrophic plague? Did you end world hunger? Did you personally prevent a global nuclear war? I could almost see the case for Norman Borlaug or Jonas Salk earning a billion dollars (neither did, by the way). But Jeff Bezos? You didn’t save the world. You made a company that sells things cheaply and ships them quickly. Get over yourself.

Where exactly do we draw that line? That’s a fair question. $20 million? $100 million? $500 million? Maybe there shouldn’t even be a hard cap. There are many other approaches we could take to reducing this staggering inequality. Previously I have proposed a tax system that gets continuously more progressive forever, as well as a CEO compensation cap based on the pay of the lowliest employees. We could impose a wealth tax, as Elizabeth Warren has proposed. Or we could simply raise the top marginal rate on income tax to something more like what it was in the 1960s. Or as Republicans today would call it, radical socialism.