Scalability and inequality

May 15 JDN 2459715

Why are some molecules (e.g. DNA) billions of times larger than others (e.g. H2O), but all atoms are within a much narrower range of sizes (only a few hundred)?

Why are some animals (e.g. elephants) millions of times as heavy as other (e.g. mice), but their cells are basically the same size?

Why does capital income vary so much more (factors of thousands or millions) than wages (factors of tens or hundreds)?

These three questions turn out to have much the same answer: Scalability.

Atoms are not very scalable: Adding another proton to a nucleus causes interactions with all the other protons, which makes the whole atom unstable after a hundred protons or so. But molecules, particularly organic polymers such as DNA, are tremendously scalable: You can add another piece to one end without affecting anything else in the molecule, and keep on doing that more or less forever.

Cells are not very scalable: Even with the aid of active transport mechanisms and complex cellular machinery, a cell’s functionality is still very much limited by its surface area. But animals are tremendously scalable: The same exponential growth that got you from a zygote to a mouse only needs to continue a couple years longer and it’ll get you all the way to an elephant. (A baby elephant, anyway; an adult will require a dozen or so years—remarkably comparable to humans, in fact.)

Labor income is not very scalable: There are only so many hours in a day, and the more hours you work the less productive you’ll be in each additional hour. But capital income is perfectly scalable: We can add another digit to that brokerage account with nothing more than a few milliseconds of electronic pulses, and keep doing that basically forever (due to the way integer storage works, above 2^63 it would require special coding, but it can be done; and seeing as that’s over 9 quintillion, it’s not likely to be a problem any time soon—though I am vaguely tempted to write a short story about an interplanetary corporation that gets thrown into turmoil by an integer overflow error).

This isn’t just an effect of our accounting either. Capital is scalable in a way that labor is not. When your contribution to production is owning a factory, there’s really nothing to stop you from owning another factory, and then another, and another. But when your contribution is working at a factory, you can only work so hard for so many hours.

When a phenomenon is highly scalable, it can take on a wide range of outcomes—as we see in molecules, animals, and capital income. When it’s not, it will only take on a narrow range of outcomes—as we see in atoms, cells, and labor income.

Exponential growth is also part of the story here: Animals certainly grow exponentially, and so can capital when invested; even some polymers function that way (e.g. under polymerase chain reaction). But I think the scalability is actually more important: Growing rapidly isn’t so useful if you’re going to immediately be blocked by a scalability constraint. (This actually relates to the difference between r- and K- evolutionary strategies, and offers further insight into the differences between mice and elephants.) Conversely, even if you grow slowly, given enough time, you’ll reach whatever constraint you’re up against.

Indeed, we can even say something about the probability distribution we are likely to get from random processes that are scalable or non-scalable.

A non-scalable random process will generally converge toward the familiar normal distribution, a “bell curve”:

[Image from Wikipedia: By Inductiveload – self-made, Mathematica, Inkscape, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3817954]

The normal distribution has most of its weight near the middle; most of the population ends up near there. This is clearly the case for labor income: Most people are middle class, while some are poor and a few are rich.

But a scalable random process will typically converge toward quite a different distribution, a Pareto distribution:

[Image from Wikipedia: By Danvildanvil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31096324]

A Pareto distribution has most of its weight near zero, but covers an extremely wide range. Indeed it is what we call fat tailed, meaning that really extreme events occur often enough to have a meaningful effect on the average. A Pareto distribution has most of the people at the bottom, but the ones at the top are really on top.

And indeed, that’s exactly how capital income works: Most people have little or no capital income (indeed only about half of Americans and only a third(!) of Brits own any stocks at all), while a handful of hectobillionaires make utterly ludicrous amounts of money literally in their sleep.

Indeed, it turns out that income in general is pretty close to distributed normally (or maybe lognormally) for most of the income range, and then becomes very much Pareto at the top—where nearly all the income is capital income.

This fundamental difference in scalability between capital and labor underlies much of what makes income inequality so difficult to fight. Capital is scalable, and begets more capital. Labor is non-scalable, and we only have to much to give.

It would require a radically different system of capital ownership to really eliminate this gap—and, well, that’s been tried, and so far, it hasn’t worked out so well. Our best option is probably to let people continue to own whatever amounts of capital, and then tax the proceeds in order to redistribute the resulting income. That certainly has its own downsides, but they seem to be a lot more manageable than either unfettered anarcho-capitalism or totalitarian communism.

Maybe we should forgive student debt after all.

May 8 JDN 2459708

President Biden has been promising some form of student debt relief since the start of his campaign, though so far all he has actually implemented is a series of no-interest deferments and some improvements to the existing forgiveness programs. (This is still significant—it has definitely helped a lot of people with cashflow during the pandemic.) Actual forgiveness for a large segment of the population remains elusive, and if it does happen, it’s unclear how extensive it will be in either intensity (amount forgiven) or scope (who is eligible).

I personally had been fine with this; while I have a substantial loan balance myself, I also have a PhD in economics, which—theoretically—should at some point entitle me to sufficient income to repay those loans.

Moreover, until recently I had been one of the few left-wing people I know to not be terribly enthusiastic about loan forgiveness. It struck me as a poor use of those government funds, because $1.75 trillion is an awful lot of money, and college graduates are a relatively privileged population. (And yes, it is valid to consider this a question of “spending”, because the US government is the least liquidity-constrained entity on Earth. In lieu of forgiving $1.75 trillion in debt, they could borrow $1.75 trillion in debt and use it to pay for whatever they want, and their ultimate budget balance would be basically the same in each case.)

But I say all this in the past tense because Krugman’s recent column has caused me to reconsider. He gives two strong reasons why debt forgiveness may actually be a good idea.

The first is that Congress is useless. Thanks to gerrymandering and the 40% or so of our population who keeps electing Republicans no matter how crazy they get, it’s all but impossible to pass useful legislation. The pandemic relief programs were the exception that proves the rule: Somehow those managed to get through, even though in any other context it’s clear that Congress would never have approved any kind of (non-military) program that spent that much money or helped that many poor people.

Student loans are the purview of the Department of Education, which is entirely under control of the Executive Branch, and therefore, ultimately, the President of the United States. So Biden could forgive student loans by executive order and there’s very little Congress could do to stop him. Even if that $1.75 trillion could be better spent, if it wasn’t going to be anyway, we may as well use it for this.

The second is that “college graduates” is too broad a category. Usually I’m on guard for this sort of thing, but in this case I faltered, and did not notice the fallacy of composition so many labor economists were making by lumping all college grads into the same economic category. Yes, some of us are doing well, but many are not. Within-group inequality matters.

A key insight here comes from carefully analyzing the college wage premium, which is the median income of college graduates, divided by the median income of high school graduates. This is an estimate of the overall value of a college education. It’s pretty large, as a matter of fact: It amounts to something like a doubling of your income, or about $1 million over one’s whole lifespan.

From about 1980-2000, wage inequality grew about as fast as today, and the college wage premium grew even faster. So it was plausible—if not necessarily correct—to believe that the wage inequality reflected the higher income and higher productivity of college grads. But since 2000, wage inequality has continued to grow, while the college wage premium has been utterly stagnant. Thus, higher inequality can no longer (if it ever could) be explained by the effects of college education.

Now some college graduates are definitely making a lot more money—such as those who went into finance. But it turns out that most are not. As Krugman points out, the 95th percentile of male college grads has seen a 25% increase in real (inflation-adjusted) income in the last 20 years, while the median male college grad has actually seen a slight decrease. (I’m not sure why Krugman restricted to males, so I’m curious how it looks if you include women. But probably not radically different?)

I still don’t think student loan forgiveness would be the best use of that (enormous sum of) money. But if it’s what’s politically feasible, it definitely could help a lot of people. And it would be easy enough to make it more progressive, by phasing out forgiveness for graduates with higher incomes.

And hey, it would certainly help me, so maybe I shouldn’t argue too strongly against it?

Rethinking progressive taxation

Apr 17 JDN 2459687

There is an extremely common and quite bizarre result in the standard theory of taxation, which is that the optimal marginal tax rate for the highest incomes should be zero. Ever since that result came out, economists have basically divided into two camps.

The more left-leaning have said, “This is obviously wrong; so why is it wrong? What are we missing?”; the more right-leaning have said, “The model says so, so it must be right! Cut taxes on the rich!”

I probably don’t need to tell you that I’m very much in the first camp. But more recently I’ve come to realize that even the answers left-leaning economists have been giving for why this result is wrong are also missing something vital.

There have been papers explaining that “the zero top rate only applies at extreme incomes” (uh, $50 billion sounds pretty extreme to me!) or “the optimal tax system can be U-shaped” (I don’t want U-shaped—we’re not supposed to be taxing the poor!)


And many economists still seem to find it reasonable to say that marginal tax rates should decline over some significant part of the distribution.

In my view, there are really two reasons why taxes should be progressive, and they are sufficiently general reasons that they should almost always override other considerations.

The first is diminishing marginal utility of wealth. The real value of a dollar is much less to someone who already has $1 million than to someone who has only $100. Thus, if we want to raise the most revenue while causing the least pain, we typically want to tax people who have a lot of money rather than people who have very little.

But the right-wing economists have an answer to this one, based on these fancy models: Yes, taking a given amount from the rich would be better (a lump-sum tax), but you can’t do that; you can only tax their income at a certain rate. (So far, that seems right. Lump-sum taxes are silly and economists talk about them too much.) But the rich are rich because they are more productive! If you tax them more, they will work less, and that will harm society as a whole due to their lost productivity.

This is the fundamental intuition behind the “top rate should be zero” result: The rich are so fantastically productive that it isn’t worth it to tax them. We simply can’t risk them working less.

But are the rich actually so fantastically productive? Are they really that smart? Do they really work that hard?

If Tony Stark were real, okay, don’t tax him. He is a one-man Singularity: He invented the perfect power source on his own, “in a cave, with a box of scraps!”; he created a true AI basically by himself; he single-handedly discovered a new stable island element and used it to make his already perfect power source even better.

But despite what his fanboys may tell you, Elon Musk is not Tony Stark. Tesla and SpaceX have done a lot of very good things, but in order to do they really didn’t need Elon Musk for much. Mainly, they needed his money. Give me $270 billion and I could make companies that build electric cars and launch rockets into space too. (Indeed, I probably would—though I’d also set up some charitable foundations as well, more like what Bill Gates did with his similarly mind-boggling wealth.)

Don’t get me wrong; Elon Musk is a very intelligent man, and he works, if anything, obsessively. (He makes his employees work excessively too—and that’s a problem.) But if he were to suddenly die, as long as a reasonably competent CEO replaced him, Tesla and SpaceX would go on working more or less as they already do. The spectacular productivity of these companies is not due to Musk alone, but thousands of highly-skilled employees. These people would be productive if Musk had not existed, and they will continue to be productive once Musk is gone.

And they aren’t particularly rich. They aren’t poor either, mind you—a typical engineer at Tesla or SpaceX is quite well-paid, and rightly so. (Median salary at SpaceX is over $115,000.) These people are brilliant, tremendously hard-working, and highly productive; and they get quite well-paid. But very few of these people are in the top 1%, and basically none of them will ever be billionaires—let alone the truly staggering wealth of a hectobillionaire like Musk himself.

How, then, does one become a billionaire? Not by being brilliant, hard-working, or productive—at least that is not sufficient, and the existence of, say, Donald Trump suggests that it is not necessary either. No, the really quintessential feature every billionaire has is remarkably simple and consistent across the board: They own a monopoly.

You can pretty much go down the list, finding what monopoly each billionaire owned: Bill Gates owned software patents on (what is still) the most widely-used OS and office suite in the world. J.K. Rowling owns copyrights on the most successful novels in history. Elon Musk owns technology patents on various innovations in energy storage and spaceflight technology—very few of which he himself invented, I might add. Andrew Carnegie owned the steel industry. John D. Rockefeller owned the oil industry. And so on.

I honestly can’t find any real exceptions: Basically every billionaire either owned a monopoly or inherited from ancestors who did. The closest things to exceptions are billionaire who did something even worse, like defrauding thousands of people, enslaving an indigenous population or running a nation with an iron fist. (And even then, Leopold II and Vladimir Putin both exerted a lot of monopoly power as part of their murderous tyranny.)

In other words, billionaire wealth is almost entirely rent. You don’t earn a billion dollars. You don’t get it by working. You get it by owning—and by using that ownership to exert monopoly power.

This means that taxing billionaire wealth wouldn’t incentivize them to work less; they already don’t work for their money. It would just incentivize them to fight less hard at extracting wealth from everyone else using their monopoly power—which hardly seems like a downside.

Since virtually all of the wealth at the top is simply rent, we have no reason not to tax it away. It isn’t genuine productivity at all; it’s just extracting wealth that other people produced.

Thus, my second, and ultimately most decisive reason for wanting strongly progressive taxes: rent-seeking. The very rich don’t actually deserve the vast majority of what they have, and we should take it back so that we can give it to people who really need and deserve it.

Now, there is a somewhat more charitable version of the view that high taxes even on the top 0.01% would hurt productivity, and it is worth addressing. That is based on the idea that entrepreneurship is valuable, and part of the incentive for becoming and entrepreneur is the chance at one day striking it fabulously rich, so taxing the fabulously rich might result in a world of fewer entrepreneurs.

This isn’t nearly as ridiculous as the idea that Elon Musk somehow works a million times as hard as the rest of us, but it’s still pretty easy to find flaws in it.

Suppose you were considering starting a business. Indeed, perhaps you already have considered it. What are your main deciding factors in whether or not you will?

Surely they do not include the difference between a 0.0001% chance of making $200 billion and a 0.0001% chance of making $50 billion. Indeed, that probably doesn’t factor in at all; you know you’ll almost certainly never get there, and even if you did, there’s basically no real difference in your way of life between $50 billion and $200 billion.

No, more likely they include things like this: (1) How likely are you to turn a profit at all? Even a profit of $50,000 per year would probably be enough to be worth it, but how sure are you that you can manage that? (2) How much funding can you get to start it in the first place? Depending on what sort of business you’re hoping to found, it could be as little as thousands or as much as millions of dollars to get it set up, well before it starts taking in any revenue. And even a few thousand is a lot for most middle-class people to come up with in one chunk and be willing to risk losing.

This means that there is a very simple policy we could implement which would dramatically increase entrepreneurship while taxing only billionaires more, and it goes like this: Add an extra 1% marginal tax to capital gains for billionaires, and plow it into a fund that gives grants of $10,000 to $100,000 to promising new startups.

That 1% tax could raise several billion dollars a year—yes, really; US billionaires gained some $2 trillion in capital gains last year, so we’d raise $20 billion—and thereby fund many, many startups. Say the average grant is $20,000 and the total revenue is $20 billion; that’s one million new startups funded every single year. Every single year! Currently, about 4 million new businesses are founded each year in the US (leading the world by a wide margin); this could raise that to 5 million.

So don’t tell me this is about incentivizing entrepreneurship. We could do that far better than we currently do, with some very simple policy changes.

Meanwhile, the economics literature on optimal taxation seems to be completely missing the point. Most of it is still mired in the assumption that the rich are rich because they are productive, and thus terribly concerned about the “trade-off” between efficiency and equity involved in higher taxes. But when you realize that the vast, vast majority—easily 99.9%—of billionaire wealth is unearned rents, then it becomes obvious that this trade-off is an illusion. We can improve efficiency and equity simultaneously, by taking some of this ludicrous hoard of unearned wealth and putting it back into productive activities, or giving it to the people who need it most. The only people who will be harmed by this are billionaires themselves, and by diminishing marginal utility of wealth, they won’t be harmed very much.

Fortunately, the tide is turning, and more economists are starting to see the light. One of the best examples comes from Piketty, Saez, and Stantcheva in their paper on how CEO “pay for luck” (e.g. stock options) respond to top tax rates. There are a few other papers that touch on similar issues, such as Lockwood, Nathanson, and Weyl and Rothschild and Scheuer. But there’s clearly a lot of space left for new work to be done. The old results that told us not to raise taxes were wrong on a deep, fundamental level, and we need to replace them with something better.

The alienation of labor

Apr 10 JDN 2459680

Marx famously wrote that capitalism “alienates labor”. Much ink has been spilled over interpreting exactly what he meant by that, but I think the most useful and charitable reading goes something like the following:

When you make something for yourself, it feels fully yours. The effort you put into it feels valuable and meaningful. Whether you’re building a house to live in it or just cooking an omelet to eat it, your labor is directly reflected in your rewards, and you have a clear sense of purpose and value in what you are doing.

But when you make something for an employer, it feels like theirs, not yours. You have been instructed by your superiors to make a certain thing a certain way, for reasons you may or may not understand (and may or may not even agree with). Once you deliver the product—which may be as concrete as a carburetor or as abstract as an accounting report—you will likely never see it again; it will be used or not by someone else somewhere else whom you may not even ever get the chance to meet. Such labor feels tedious, effortful, exhausting—and also often empty, pointless, and meaningless.

On that reading, Marx isn’t wrong. There really is something to this. (I don’t know if this is really Marx’s intended meaning or not, and really I don’t much care—this is a valid thing and we should be addressing it, whether Marx meant to or not.)

There is a little parable about this, which I can’t quite remember where I heard:

Three men are moving heavy stones from one place to another. A traveler passes by and asks them, “What are you doing?”

The first man sighs and says, “We do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

The second man shrugs and says, “We pick up the rocks here, we move them over there.”

The third man smiles and says, “We’re building a cathedral.”

The three answers are quite different—yet all three men may be telling the truth as they see it.

The first man is fully alienated from his labor: he does whatever the boss says, following instructions that he considers arbitrary and mechanical. The second man is partially alienated: he knows the mechanics of what he is trying to accomplish, which may allow him to improve efficiency in some way (e.g. devise better ways to transport the rocks faster or with less effort), but he doesn’t understand the purpose behind it all, so ultimately his work still feels meaningless. But the third man is not alienated: he understands the purpose of his work, and he values that purpose. He sees that what he is doing is contributing to a greater whole that he considers worthwhile. It’s not hard to imagine that the third man will be the happiest, and the first will be the unhappiest.

There really is something about the capitalist wage-labor structure that can easily feed into this sort of alienation. You get a job because you need money to live, not because you necessarily value whatever the job does. You do as you are told so that you can keep your job and continue to get paid.

Some jobs are much more alienating than others. Most teachers and nurses see their work as a vocation, even a calling—their work has deep meaning for them and they value its purpose. At the other extreme there are corporate lawyers and derivatives traders, who must on some level understand that their work contributes almost nothing to the world (may in fact actively cause harm), but they continue to do the work because it pays them very well.

But there are many jobs in between which can be experienced both ways. Working in retail can be an agonizing grind where you must face a grueling gauntlet of ungrateful customers day in and day out—or it can be a way to participate in your local community and help your neighbors get the things they need. Working in manufacturing can be a mechanical process of inserting tab A into slot B and screwing it into place over, and over, and over again—or it can be a chance to create something, convert raw materials into something useful and valuable that other people can cherish.

And while individual perspective and framing surely matter here—those three men were all working in the same quarry, building the same cathedral—there is also an important objective component as well. Working as an artisan is not as alienating as working on an assembly line. Hosting a tent at a farmer’s market is not as alienating as working the register at Walmart. Tutoring an individual student is more purposeful than recording video lectures for a MOOC. Running a quirky local book store is more fulfilling than stocking shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Moreover, capitalism really does seem to push us more toward the alienating side of the spectrum. Assembly lines are far more efficient than artisans, so we make most of our products on assembly lines. Buying food at Walmart is cheaper and more convenient than at farmer’s markets, so more people shop there. Hiring one video lecturer for 10,000 students is a lot cheaper than paying 100 in-person lecturers, let alone 1,000 private tutors. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t drive out local book stores by some nefarious means: It just provides better service at lower prices. If you want a specific book for a good price right now, you’re much more likely to find it at Barnes & Noble. (And even more likely to find it on Amazon.)

Finding meaning in your work is very important for human happiness. Indeed, along with health and social relationships, it’s one of the biggest determinants of happiness. For most people in First World countries, it seems to be more important than income (though income certainly does matter).

Yet the increased efficiency and productivity upon which our modern standard of living depends seems to be based upon a system of production—in a word, capitalism—that systematically alienates us from meaning in our work.

This puts us in a dilemma: Do we keep things as they are, accepting that we will feel an increasing sense of alienation and ennui as our wealth continues to grow and we get ever-fancier toys to occupy our meaningless lives? Or do we turn back the clock, returning to a world where work once again has meaning, but at the cost of making everyone poorer—and some people desperately so?

Well, first of all, to some extent this is a false dichotomy. There are jobs that are highly meaningful but also highly productive, such as teaching and engineering. (Even recording a video lecture is a lot more fulfilling than plenty of jobs out there.) We could try to direct more people into jobs like these. There are jobs that are neither particularly fulfilling nor especially productive, like driving trucks, washing floors and waiting tables. We could redouble our efforts into automating such jobs out of existence. There are meaningless jobs that are lucrative only by rent-seeking, producing little or no genuine value, like the aforementioned corporate lawyers and derivatives traders. These, quite frankly, could simply be banned—or if there is some need for them in particular circumstances (I guess someone should defend corporations when they get sued; but they far more often go unjustly unpunished than unjustly punished!), strictly regulated and their numbers and pay rates curtailed.

Nevertheless, we still have decisions to make, as a society, about what we value most. Do we want a world of cheap, mostly adequate education, that feels alienating even to the people producing it? Then MOOCs are clearly the way to go; pennies on the dollar for education that could well be half as good! Or do we want a world of high-quality, personalized teaching, by highly-qualified academics, that will help students learn better and feel more fulfilling for the teachers? More pointedly—are we willing to pay for that higher-quality education, knowing it will be more expensive?

Moreover, in the First World at least, our standard of living is… pretty high already? Like seriously, what do we really need that we don’t already have? We could always imagine more, of course—a bigger house, a nicer car, dining at fancier restaurants, and so on. But most of us have roofs over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on our tables.

Economic growth has done amazing things for us—but maybe we’re kind of… done? Maybe we don’t need to keep growing like this, and should start redirecting our efforts away from greater efficiency and toward greater fulfillment. Maybe there are economic possibilities we haven’t been considering.

Note that I specifically mean First World countries here. In Third World countries it’s totally different—they need growth, lots of it, as fast as possible. Fulfillment at work ends up being a pretty low priority when your children are starving and dying of malaria.

But then, you may wonder: If we stop buying cheap plastic toys to fill the emptiness in our hearts, won’t that throw all those Chinese factory workers back into poverty?

In the system as it stands? Yes, that’s a real concern. A sudden drop in consumption spending in general, or even imports in particular, in First World countries could be economically devastating for millions of people in Third World countries.

But there’s nothing inherent about this arrangement. There are less-alienating ways of working that can still provide a decent standard of living, and there’s no fundamental reason why people around the world couldn’t all be doing them. If they aren’t, it’s in the short run because they don’t have the education or the physical machinery—and in the long run it’s usually because their government is corrupt and authoritarian. A functional democratic government can get you capital and education remarkably fast—it certainly did in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

Automation is clearly a big part of the answer here. Many people in the First World seem to suspect that our way of life depends upon the exploited labor of impoverished people in Third World countries, but this is largely untrue. Most of that work could be done by robots and highly-skilled technicians and engineers; it just isn’t because that would cost more. Yes, that higher cost would mean some reduction in standard of living—but it wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic as many people seem to think. We would have slightly smaller houses and slightly older cars and slightly slower laptops, but we’d still have houses and cars and laptops.

So I don’t think we should all cast off our worldly possessions just yet. Whether or not it would make us better off, it would cause great harm to countries that depend on their exports to us. But in the long run, I do think we should be working to achieve a future for humanity that isn’t so obsessed with efficiency and growth, and instead tries to provide both a decent standard of living and a life of meaning and purpose.

The economic impact of chronic illness

Mar 27 JDN 2459666

This topic is quite personal for me, as someone who has suffered from chronic migraines since adolescence. Some days, weeks, and months are better than others. This past month has been the worst I have felt since 2019, when we moved into an apartment that turned out to be full of mold. This time, there is no clear trigger—which also means no easy escape.

The economic impact of chronic illness is enormous. 90% of US healthcare spending is on people with chronic illnesses, including mental illnesses—and the US has the most expensive healthcare system in the world by almost any measure. Over 55% of adult Medicaid beneficiaries have two or more chronic illnesses.

The total annual cost of all chronic illnesses is hard to estimate, but it’s definitely somewhere in the trillions of dollars per year. The World Economic Forum estimated that number at $47 trillion over the next 20 years, which I actually consider conservative. I think this is counting how much we actually spend and some notion of lost productivity, as well as the (fraught) concept of the value of a statistical life—but I don’t think it’s putting a sensible value on the actual suffering. This will effectively undervalue poor people who are suffering severely but can’t get treated—because they spend little and can’t put a large dollar value on their lives. In the US, where the data is the best, the total cost of chronic illness comes to nearly $4 trillion per year—20% of GDP. If other countries are as bad or worse (and I don’t see why they would be better), then we’re looking at something like $17 trillion in real cost every single year; so over the next 20 years that’s not $47 trillion—it’s over $340 trillion.

Over half of US adults have at least one of the following, and over a quarter have two or more: arthritis, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coronary heart disease, current asthma, diabetes, hepatitis, hypertension, stroke, or kidney disease. (Actually the former very nearly implies the latter, unless chronic conditions somehow prevented one another. Two statistically independent events with 50% probability will jointly occur 25% of the time: Flip two coins.)

Unsurprisingly, age is positively correlated with chronic illness. Income is negatively correlated, both because chronic illnesses reduce job opportunities and because poorer people have more trouble getting good treatment. I am the exception that proves the rule, the upper-middle-class professional with both a PhD and a severe chronic illness.

There seems to be a common perception that chronic illness is largely a “First World problem”, but in fact chronic illnesses are more common—and much less poorly treated—in countries with low and moderate levels of development than they are in the most highly-developed countries. Over 75% of all deaths by non-communicable disease are in low- and middle-income countries. The proportion of deaths that is caused by non-communicable diseases is higher in high-income countries—but that’s because other diseases have been basically eradicated from high-income countries. People in rich countries actually suffer less from chronic illness than people in poor countries (on average).

It’s always a good idea to be careful of the distinction between incidence and prevalence, but with chronic illness this is particularly important, because (almost by definition) chronic illnesses last longer and so can have very high prevalence even with low incidence. Indeed, the odds of someone getting their first migraine (incidence) are low precisely because the odds of being someone who gets migraines (prevalence) is so high.

Quite high in fact: About 10% of men and 20% of women get migraines at least occasionally—though only about 8% of these (so 1% of men and 2% of women) get chronic migraines. Indeed, because ti is both common and can be quite severe, migraine is the second-most disabling condition worldwide as measured by years lived with disability (YLD), after low back pain. Neurologists are particularly likely to get migraines; the paper I linked speculates that they are better at realizing they have migraines, but I think we also need to consider the possibility of self-selection bias where people with migraines may be more likely to become neurologists. (I considered it, and it seems at least as good a reason as becoming a dentist because your name is Denise.)

If you order causes by the number of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) they cost, chronic conditions rank quite high: while cardiovascular disease and cancer rate by far the highest, diabetes and kidney disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders, and musculoskeletal disorders all rate higher than malaria, HIV, or any other infection except respiratory infections (read: tuberculosis, influenza, and, once these charts are updated for the next few years, COVID). Note also that at the very bottom is “conflict and terrorism”—that’s all organized violence in the world—and natural disasters. Mental disorders alone cost the world 20 times as many DALYs as all conflict and terrorism combined.

Basic income reconsidered

Feb 20 JDN 2459631

In several previous posts I have sung the praises of universal basic income (though I have also tried to acknowledge the challenges involved).

In this post I’d like to take a step back and reconsider the question of whether basic income is really the best approach after all. One nagging thought keeps coming back to me, and it is the fact that basic income is extremely expensive.

About 11% of the US population lives below the standard poverty line. There are many criticisms of the standard poverty line: Some say it’s too high, because you can compare it favorably with middle-class incomes in much poorer countries. Others say it’s too low, because income at that level doesn’t allow people to really live in financial security. There are many difficult judgment calls that go into devising a poverty threshold, and we can reasonably debate whether the right ones were made here.

However, I think this threshold is at least approximately correct; maybe the true poverty threshold for a household of 1 should be not $12,880 but $11,000 or $15,000, but I don’t think it should be $5,000 or $25,000. Maybe for a household of 4 it should be not $26,500 but $19,000 or $32,000; but I don’t think it should be $12,000 or $40,000.

So let’s suppose that we wanted to implement a universal basic income in the United States that would lift everyone out of poverty. We could essentially do that by taking the 2-person-household threshold of $17,420 and dividing it by 2, yielding $8,710 per person per year. (Why not use the 1-person-household threshold? There aren’t very many 1-person households in poverty, and that threshold would be considerably higher and thus considerably more expensive. A typical poor household is a single parent and one or more children; as long as kids get the basic income, that household would be above the threshold in this system.)

The US population is currently about 331 million people. If every single one of them were to receive a basic income of $8,710, that would cost nearly $2.9 trillion per year. This is a feasible amount—it’s less than half the current total federal budget—but it is still a very large amount. The tax increases required to support it would be massive, and that’s probably why, despite ostensibly bipartisan support for the idea of a basic income, no serious proposal has ever gotten off of the ground.

If on the other hand we were to only give the basic income to people below the poverty line, that would cost only 11% of that amount: A far more manageable $320 billion per year.

We don’t want to do exactly that, however, because it would create all kinds of harmful distortions in the economy. Consider someone who is just below the threshold, considering whether to take on more work or get a higher-paying job. If their household pre-tax income is currently $15,000 and they could raise it to $18,000, a basic income given only to people below the threshold would mean that they are choosing between $15,000+$17,000=$32,000 if they keep their current work and $18,000 if they increase it. Clearly, they would not want to take on more work. That’s a terrible system—it amounts to a marginal tax rate above 100%.

Another possible method would be to simply top off people’s income, give them whatever they need to get to the poverty line but no more. (This would actually be even cheaper; it would probably cost something more like $160 billion per year.) That removes the distortion for people near the threshold, at the cost of making it much worse for those far below the threshold. Someone considering whether to work for $7,000 or work for $11,000 is, in such a system, choosing whether to work less for $17,000 or work more for… $17,000. They will surely choose to work less.

In order to solve these problems, what we would most likely need to do is gradually phase out the basic income, so that say increasing your pre-tax income by $1.00 would decrease your basic income payment by $0.50. The cost of this system would be somewhere in between that of a truly universal basic income and a threshold-based system, so let’s ballpark that as around $600 billion per year. It would effectively implement a marginal tax rate of 50% for anyone who is receiving basic income payments.

In theory, this is probably worse than a universal basic income, because in the latter case you can target the taxes however you like—and thus (probably) make them less cause less distortion than the phased-out basic income system would. But in practice, a truly universal basic income might simply not be politically viable, and some kind of phased-out system seems much more likely to actually get passed.


Even then, I confess I am not extremely optimistic. For some reason, everyone seems to want to end poverty, but very few seem willing to use the obvious solution: Give poor people money.

Cryptocurrency and its failures

Jan 30 JDN 2459620

It started out as a neat idea, though very much a solution in search of a problem. Using encryption, could we decentralize currency and eliminate the need for a central bank?

Well, it’s been a few years now, and we have now seen how well that went. Bitcoin recently crashed, but it has always been astonishingly volatile. As a speculative asset, such volatility is often tolerable—for many, even profitable. But as a currency, it is completely unbearable. People need to know that their money will be a store of value and a medium of exchange—and something that changes price one minute to the next is neither.

Some of cryptocurrency’s failures have been hilarious, like the ill-fated island called [yes, really] “Cryptoland”, which crashed and burned when they couldn’t find any investors to help them buy the island.

Others have been darkly comic, but tragic in their human consequences. Chief among these was the failed attempt by El Salvador to make Bitcoin an official currency.

At the time, President Bukele justified it by an economically baffling argument: Total value of all Bitcoin in the world is $680 billion, therefore if even 1% gets invested in El Salvador, GDP will increase by $6.8 billion, which is 25%!

First of all, that would only happen if 1% of all Bitcoin were invested in El Salvador each year—otherwise you’re looking at a one-time injection of money, not an increase in GDP.

But more importantly, this is like saying that the total US dollar supply is $6 trillion, (that’s physically cash; the actual money supply is considerably larger) so maybe by dollarizing your economy you can get 1% of that—$60 billion, baby! No, that’s not how any of this works. Dollarizing could still be a good idea (though it didn’t go all that well in El Salvador), but it won’t give you some kind of share in the US economy. You can’t collect dividends on US GDP.

It’s actually good how El Salvador’s experiment in bitcoin failed: Nobody bought into it in the first place. They couldn’t convince people to buy government assets that were backed by Bitcoin (perhaps because the assets were a strictly worse deal than just, er, buying Bitcoin). So the human cost of this idiotic experiment should be relatively minimal: It’s not like people are losing their homes over this.

That is, unless President Bukele doubles down, which he now appears to be doing. Even people who are big fans of cryptocurrency are unimpressed with El Salvador’s approach to it.

It would be one thing if there were some stable cryptocurrency that one could try pegging one’s national currency to, but there isn’t. Even so-called stablecoins are generally pegged to… regular currencies, typically the US dollar but also sometimes the Euro or a few other currencies. (I’ve seen the Australian Dollar and the Swiss Franc, but oddly enough, not the Pound Sterling.)

Or a country could try issuing its own cryptocurrency, as an all-digital currency instead of one that is partly paper. It’s not totally clear to me what advantages this would have over the current system (in which most of the money supply is bank deposits, i.e. already digital), but it would at least preserve the key advantage of having a central bank that can regulate your money supply.

But no, President Bukele decided to take an already-existing cryptocurrency, backed by nothing but the whims of the market, and make it legal tender. Somehow he missed the fact that a currency which rises and falls by 10% in a single day is generally considered bad.

Why? Is he just an idiot? I mean, maybe, though Bukele’s approval rating is astonishingly high. (And El Salvador is… mostly democratic. Unlike, say, Putin’s, I think these approval ratings are basically real.) But that’s not the only reason. My guess is that he was gripped by the same FOMO that has gripped everyone else who evangelizes for Bitcoin. The allure of easy money is often irresistible.

Consider President Bukele’s position. You’re governing a poor, war-torn country which has had economic problems of various types since its founding. When the national currency collapsed a generation ago, the country was put on the US dollar, but that didn’t solve the problem. So you’re looking for a better solution to the monetary doldrums your country has been in for decades.

You hear about a fancy new monetary technology, “cryptocurrency”, which has all the tech people really excited and seems to be making tons of money. You don’t understand a thing about it—hardly anyone seems to, in fact—but you know that people with a lot of insider knowledge of technology and finance are really invested in it, so it seems like there must be something good here. So, you decide to launch a program that will convert your country’s currency from the US dollar to one of these new cryptocurrencies—and you pick the most famous one, which is also extremely valuable, Bitcoin.

Could cryptocurrencies be the future of money, you wonder? Could this be the way to save your country’s economy?

Despite all the evidence that had already accumulated that cryptocurrency wasn’t working, I can understand why Bukele would be tempted by that dream. Just as we’d all like to get free money without having to work, he wanted to save his country’s economy without having to implement costly and unpopular reforms.

But there is no easy money. Not really. Some people get lucky; but they ultimately benefit from other people’s hard work.

The lesson here is deeper than cryptocurrency. Yes, clearly, it was a dumb idea to try to make Bitcoin a national currency, and it will get even dumber if Bukele really does double down on it. But more than that, we must all resist the lure of easy money. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Reversals in progress against poverty

Jan 16 JDN 2459606

I don’t need to tell you that the COVID pandemic has been very bad for the world. Yet perhaps the worst outcome of the pandemic is one that most people don’t recognize: It has reversed years of progress against global poverty.

Estimates of the number of people who will be thrown into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic are consistently around 100 million, though some forecasts have predicted this will rise to 150 million, or, in the most pessimistic scenarios, even as high as 500 million.

Pre-COVID projections showed the global poverty rate falling steadily from 8.4% in 2019 to 6.3% by 2030. But COVID resulted in the first upward surge in global poverty in decades, and updated models now suggest that the global poverty rate in 2030 will be as high as 7.0%. That difference is 0.7% of a forecasted population of 8.5 billion—so that’s a difference of 59 million people.

This is a terrible reversal of fortune, and a global tragedy. Ten or perhaps even hundreds of millions of people will suffer the pain of poverty because of this global pandemic and the numerous missteps by many of the world’s governments—not least the United States—in response to it.

Yet it’s important to keep in mind that this is a short-term reversal in a long-term trend toward reduced poverty. Yes, the most optimistic predictions are turning out to be wrong—but the general pattern of dramatic reductions in global poverty over the late 20th and early 21st century are still holding up.

That post-COVID estimate of a global poverty rate of 7.0% needs to be compared against the fact that as recently as 1980 the global poverty rate at the same income level (adjust for inflation and purchasing power of course) income level was a whopping 44%.

This pattern makes me feel deeply ambivalent about the effects of globalization on inequality. While it now seems clear that globalization has exacerbated inequality within First World countries—and triggered a terrible backlash of right-wing populism as a result—it also seems clear that globalization was a major reason for the dramatic reductions in global poverty in the past few decades.

I think the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that globalization is overall a good thing, and we must continue it—but we also need to be much more mindful of its costs, and we must make policy that mitigates those costs. Expanded trade has winners and losers, and we should be taxing the winners to compensate the losers. To make good economic policy, it simply isn’t enough to increase aggregate GDP; you actually have to make life better for everyone (or at least as many people as you can).

Unfortunately, knowing what policies to make is only half the battle. We must actually implement those policies, which means winning elections, which means restoring the public’s faith in the authority of economic experts.

Some of the people voting for Donald Trump were just what Hillary Clinton correctly (if tone-deafly) referred to as “deplorables“: racists, misogynists, xenophobes. But I think that many others weren’t voting for Trump but against Clinton; they weren’t embracing far-right populism but rather rejecting center-left technocratic globalization. They were tired of being told what to do by experts who didn’t seem to care about them or their interests.

And the thing is, they were right about that. Not about voting for Trump—that’s unforgivable—but about the fact that expert elites had been ignoring their interests and needed a wake-up call. There were a hundred better ways of making that wake-up call that didn’t involve putting a narcissistic, incompetent maniac in charge of the world’s largest economy, military and nuclear arsenal, and millions of people should be ashamed of themselves for not taking those better options. Yet the fact remains: The wake-up call was necessary, and we should be responding to it.

We expert elites (I think I can officially carry that card, now that I have a PhD and a faculty position at a leading research university) need to do a much better job of two things: First, articulating the case for our policy recommendations in a way that ordinary people can understand, so that they feel justified and not simply rammed down people’s throats; and second, recognizing the costs and downsides of these policies and taking action to mitigate them whenever possible.

For instance: Yes, we need to destroy all the coal jobs. They are killing workers and the planet. Coal companies need to be transitioned to new industries or else shut down. This is not optional. It must be done. But we also need to explain to those coal miners why it’s necessary to move on from coal to solar and nuclear, and we need to be implementing various policies to help those workers move on to better, safer jobs that pay as well and don’t involve filling their lungs with soot and the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. We need to articulate, emphasize—and loudly repeat—that this isn’t about hurting coal miners to help everyone else, but about helping everyone, coal miners included, and that if anyone gets hurt it will only be a handful of psychopathic billionaires who already have more money than any human being could possibly need or deserve.

Another example: We cannot stop trading with India and China. Hundreds of millions of innocent people would suddenly be thrown out of work and into poverty if we did. We need the products they make for us, and they need the money we pay for those products. But we must also acknowledge that trading with poor countries does put downward pressure on wages back home, and take action to help First World workers who are now forced to compete with global labor markets. Maybe this takes the form of better unemployment benefits, or job-matching programs, or government-sponsored job training. But we cannot simply shrug and let people lose their jobs and their homes because the factories they worked in were moved to China.

Strange times for the labor market

Jan 9 JDN 2459589

Labor markets have been behaving quite strangely lately, due to COVID and its consequences. As I said in an earlier post, the COVID recession was the one recession I can think of that actually seemed to follow Real Business Cycle theory—where it was labor supply, not demand, that drove employment.

I dare say that for the first time in decades, the US government actually followed Keynesian policy. US federal government spending surged from $4.8 trillion to $6.8 trillion in a single year:

That is a staggering amount of additional spending; I don’t think any country in history has ever increased their spending by that large an amount in a single year, even inflation-adjusted. Yet in response to a recession that severe, this is exactly what Keynesian models prescribed—and for once, we listened. Instead of balking at the big numbers, we went ahead and spent the money.

And apparently it worked, because unemployment spiked to the worst levels seen since the Great Depression, then suddenly plummeted back to normal almost immediately:

Nor was this just the result of people giving up on finding work. U-6, the broader unemployment measure that includes people who are underemployed or have given up looking for work, shows the same unprecedented pattern:

The oddest part is that people are now quitting their jobs at the highest rate seen in over 20 years:

[FRED_quits.png]

This phenomenon has been dubbed the Great Resignation, and while its causes are still unclear, it is clearly the most important change in the labor market in decades.

In a previous post I hypothesized that this surge in strikes and quits was a coordination effect: The sudden, consistent shock to all labor markets at once gave people a focal point to coordinate their decision to strike.

But it’s also quite possible that it was the Keynesian stimulus that did it: The relief payments made it safe for people to leave jobs they had long hated, and they leapt at the opportunity.

When that huge surge in government spending was proposed, the usual voices came out of the woodwork to warn of terrible inflation. It’s true, inflation has been higher lately than usual, nearly 7% last year. But we still haven’t hit the double-digit inflation rates we had in the late 1970s and early 1980s:

Indeed, most of the inflation we’ve had can be explained by the shortages created by the supply chain crisis, along with a very interesting substitution effect created by the pandemic. As services shut down, people bought goods instead: Home gyms instead of gym memberships, wifi upgrades instead of restaurant meals.

As a result, the price of durable goods actually rose, when it had previously been falling for decades. That broader pattern is worth emphasizing: As technology advances, services like healthcare and education get more expensive, durable goods like phones and washing machines get cheaper, and nondurable goods like food and gasoline fluctuate but ultimately stay about the same. But in the last year or so, durable goods have gotten more expensive too, because people want to buy more while supply chains are able to deliver less.

This suggests that the inflation we are seeing is likely to go away in a few years, once the pandemic is better under control (or else reduced to a new influenza where the virus is always there but we learn to live with it).

But I don’t think the effects on the labor market will be so transitory. The strikes and quits we’ve been seeing lately really are at a historic level, and they are likely to have a long-lasting effect on how work is organized. Employers are panicking about having to raise wages and whining about how “no one wants to work” (meaning, of course, no one wants to work at the current wage and conditions on offer). The correct response is the one from Goodfellas [language warning].

For the first time in decades, there are actually more job vacancies than unemployed workers:

This means that the tables have turned. The bargaining power is suddenly in the hands of workers again, after being in the hands of employers for as long as I’ve been alive. Of course it’s impossible to know whether some other shock could yield another reversal; but for now, it looks like we are finally on the verge of major changes in how labor markets operate—and I for one think it’s about time.

Low-skill jobs

Dec 5 JDN 2459554

I’ve seen this claim going around social media for awhile now: “Low-skill jobs are a classist myth created to justify poverty wages.”

I can understand why people would say things like this. I even appreciate that many low-skill jobs are underpaid and unfairly stigmatized. But it’s going a bit too far to claim that there is no such thing as a low-skill job.

Suppose all the world’s physicists and all the world’s truckers suddenly had to trade jobs for a month. Who would have a harder time?

If a mathematician were asked to do the work of a janitor, they’d be annoyed. If a janitor were asked to do the work of a mathematician, they’d be completely nonplussed.

I could keep going: Compare robotics engineers to dockworkers or software developers to fruit pickers.

Higher pay does not automatically equate to higher skills: welders are clearly more skilled than stock traders. Give any welder a million-dollar account and a few days of training, and they could do just as well as the average stock trader (which is to say, worse than the S&P 500). Give any stock trader welding equipment and a similar amount of training, and they’d be lucky to not burn their fingers off, much less actually usefully weld anything.

This is not to say that any random person off the street could do just as well as a janitor or dockworker as someone who has years of experience at that job. It is simply to say that they could do better—and pick up the necessary skills faster—than a random person trying to work as a physicist or software developer.

Moreover, this does justify some difference in pay. If some jobs are easier than others, in the sense that more people are qualified to do them, then the harder jobs will need to pay more in order to attract good talent—if they didn’t, they’d risk their high-skill workers going and working at the low-skill jobs instead.

This is of course assuming all else equal, which is clearly not the case. No two jobs are the same, and there are plenty of other considerations that go into choosing someone’s wage: For one, not simply what skills are required, but also the effort and unpleasantness involved in doing the work. I’m entirely prepared to believe that being a dockworker is less fun than being a physicist, and this should reduce the differential in pay between them. Indeed, it may have: Dockworkers are paid relatively well as far as low-skill jobs go—though nowhere near what physicists are paid. Then again, productivity is also a vital consideration, and there is a general tendency that high-skill jobs tend to be objectively more productive: A handful of robotics engineers can do what was once the work of hundreds of factory laborers.

There are also ways for a worker to be profitable without being particularly productive—that is, to be very good at rent-seeking. This is arguably the case for lawyers and real estate agents, and undeniably the case for derivatives traders and stockbrokers. Corporate executives aren’t stupid; they wouldn’t pay these workers astronomical salaries if they weren’t making money doing so. But it’s quite possible to make lots of money without actually producing anything of particular value for human society.

But that doesn’t mean that wages are always fair. Indeed, I dare say they typically are not. One of the most important determinants of wages is bargaining power. Unions don’t increase skill and probably don’t increase productivity—but they certainly increase wages, because they increase bargaining power.

And this is also something that’s correlated with lower levels of skill, because the more people there are who know how to do what you do, the harder it is for you to make yourself irreplaceable. A mathematician who works on the frontiers of conformal geometry or Teichmueller theory may literally be one of ten people in the world who can do what they do (quite frankly, even the number of people who know what they do is considerably constrained, though probably still at least in the millions). A dockworker, even one who is particularly good at loading cargo skillfully and safely, is still competing with millions of other people with similar skills. The easier a worker is to replace, the less bargaining power they have—in much the same way that a monopoly has higher profits than an oligopoly, which has higher profits that a competitive market.

This is why I support unions. I’m also a fan of co-ops, and an ardent supporter of progressive taxation and safety regulations. So don’t get me wrong: Plenty of low-skill workers are mistreated and underpaid, and they deserve better.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lot easier to be a janitor than a physicist.