Housing prices are out of control

Oct 2 JDN 2459855

This is a topic I could have done for quite awhile now, and will surely address again in the future; it’s a slow-burn crisis that has covered most of the world for a generation.

In most of the world’s cities, housing prices are now the highest they have ever been, even adjusted for inflation. The pandemic made this worse, but it was already bad.

This is of course very important, because housing is usually the largest expenditure for most families.

Changes in housing prices are directly felt in people’s lifestyles, especially when they are renting. Homeownership rates vary a lot between countries, so the impact of this is quite different in different places.

There’s also an important redistributive effect: When housing prices go up, people who own homes get richer, while people who rent homes get poorer. Since people who own homes tend to be richer to begin with (and landlordsare typically richest of all), rising housing prices directly increase wealth inequality.

The median price of a house in the US, even adjusted for inflation, is nearly twice what it was in 1993.

This wasn’t a slow and steady climb; housing prices moved with inflation for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and then surged upward just before the 2008 crash. Then they plummeted for a few years, before reversing course and surging even higher than they were at their 2007 peak:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CSUSHPINSA

[housing_prices_US_2.png]

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/USSTHPI

This is not a uniquely American problem. The UK shows almost the same pattern:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HPIUKA

But it’s also not the same pattern everywhere. In China, housing prices have been rising steadily, and didn’t crash in 2008:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/QCNN628BIS

In France, housing prices have been relatively stable, and are no higher now than they were in the 1990s:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CP0410FRM086NEST

Meanwhile, in Japan, housing prices surged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, ending up four times what they had been in the 1960s; then they suddenly leveled off and haven’t changed since:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/JPNCPIHOUMINMEI

It’s also worse in some cities than others. In San Francisco, housing now costs three times what it did in the 1990s, even adjusting for inflation:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/SFXRSA

Meanwhile, in Detroit, housing is only about 25% more expensive now than it was in the 1990s:

https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/ATNHPIUS19804Q

This variation tells me that policy matters. This isn’t some inevitable result of population growth or technological change. Those could still be important factors, but they can’t explain the strong varation between countries or even between cities within the same country. (Yes, San Francisco has seen more population growth than Detroit—but not that much more.)

Part of the problem, I think, is that most policymakers don’t actually want housing to be more affordable. They might say they do, they might occasionally feel some sympathy for people who get evicted or live on the streets; but in general, they want housing prices to be higher, because that gives them more property tax revenue. The wealthy benefit from rising housing prices, while the poor are harmed. Since the interests of the wealthy are wildly overrepresented in policy, policy is made to increase housing prices, not decrease them. This is likely especially true in housing, because even the upper-middle class mostly benefits from rising housing prices. It’s only the poor and lower-middle class who are typically harmed.

This is why I don’t really want to get into suggesting policies that could fix this. We know what would fix this: Build more housing. Lots of it. Everywhere. Increase supply, and the price will go down. And we should keep doing it until housing is not just back where it was, but cheaper—much cheaper. Buying a house shouldn’t be a luxury afforded only to the upper-middle class; it should be something everyone does several times in their life and doesn’t have to worry too much about. Buying a house should be like buying a car; not cheap, exactly, but you don’t have to be rich to do it. Because everyone needs housing. So everyone should have housing.

But that isn’t going to happen, because the people who make the decisions about this don’t want it to happen.

So the real question becomes: What do we do about that?

The injustice of talent

Sep 4 JDN 2459827

Consider the following two principles of distributive justice.

A: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to what they accomplish.

B: People deserve to be rewarded in proportion to the effort they put in.

Both principles sound pretty reasonable, don’t they? They both seem like sensible notions of fairness, and I think most people would broadly agree with both them.

This is a problem, because they are mutually contradictory. We cannot possibly follow them both.

For, as much as our society would like to pretend otherwise—and I think this contradiction is precisely why our society would like to pretend otherwise—what you accomplish is not simply a function of the effort you put in.

Don’t get me wrong; it is partly a function of the effort you put in. Hard work does contribute to success. But it is neither sufficient, nor strictly necessary.

Rather, success is a function of three factors: Effort, Environment, and Talent.

Effort is the work you yourself put in, and basically everyone agrees you deserve to be rewarded for that.

Environment includes all the outside factors that affect you—including both natural and social environment. Inheritance, illness, and just plain luck are all in here, and there is general, if not universal, agreement that society should make at least some efforts to minimize inequality created by such causes.

And then, there is talent. Talent includes whatever capacities you innately have. It could be strictly genetic, or it could be acquired in childhood or even in the womb. But by the time you are an adult and responsible for your own life, these factors are largely fixed and immutable. This includes things like intelligence, disability, even height. The trillion-dollar question is: How much should we reward talent?

For talent clearly does matter. I will never swim like Michael Phelps, run like Usain Bolt, or shoot hoops like Steph Curry. It doesn’t matter how much effort I put in, how many hours I spend training—I will never reach their level of capability. Never. It’s impossible. I could certainly improve from my current condition; perhaps it would even be good for me to do so. But there are certain hard fundamental constraints imposed by biology that give them more potential in these skills than I will ever have.

Conversely, there are likely things I can do that they will never be able to do, though this is less obvious. Could Michael Phelps never be as good a programmer or as skilled a mathematician as I am? He certainly isn’t now. Maybe, with enough time, enough training, he could be; I honestly don’t know. But I can tell you this: I’m sure it would be harder for him than it was for me. He couldn’t breeze through college-level courses in differential equations and quantum mechanics the way I did. There is something I have that he doesn’t, and I’m pretty sure I was born with it. Call it spatial working memory, or mathematical intuition, or just plain IQ. Whatever it is, math comes easy to me in not so different a way from how swimming comes easy to Michael Phelps. I have talent for math; he has talent for swimming.

Moreover, these are not small differences. It’s not like we all come with basically the same capabilities with a little bit of variation that can be easily washed out by effort. We’d like to believe that—we have all sorts of cultural tropes that try to inculcate that belief in us—but it’s obviously not true. The vast majority of quantum physicists are people born with high IQ. The vast majority of pro athletes are people born with physical prowess. The vast majority of movie stars are people born with pretty faces. For many types of jobs, the determining factor seems to be talent.

This isn’t too surprising, actually—even if effort matters a lot, we would still expect talent to show up as the determining factor much of the time.

Let’s go back to that contest function model I used to analyze the job market awhile back (the one that suggests we spend way too much time and money in the hiring process). This time let’s focus on the perspective of the employees themselves.

Each employee has a level of talent, h. Employee X has talent hx and exerts effort x, producing output of a quality that is the product of these: hx x. Similarly, employee Z has talent hz and exerts effort z, producing output hz z.

Then, there’s a certain amount of luck that factors in. The most successful output isn’t necessarily the best, or maybe what should have been the best wasn’t because some random circumstance prevailed. But we’ll say that the probability an individual succeeds is proportional to the quality of their output.

So the probability that employee X succeeds is: hx x / ( hx x + hz z)

I’ll skip the algebra this time (if you’re interested you can look back at that previous post), but to make a long story short, in Nash equilibrium the two employees will exert exactly the same amount of effort.

Then, which one succeeds will be entirely determined by talent; because x = z, the probability that X succeeds is hx / ( hx + hz).

It’s not that effort doesn’t matter—it absolutely does matter, and in fact in this model, with zero effort you get zero output (which isn’t necessarily the case in real life). It’s that in equilibrium, everyone is exerting the same amount of effort; so what determines who wins is innate talent. And I gotta say, that sounds an awful lot like how professional sports works. It’s less clear whether it applies to quantum physicists.

But maybe we don’t really exert the same amount of effort! This is true. Indeed, it seems like actually effort is easier for people with higher talent—that the same hour spent running on a track is easier for Usain Bolt than for me, and the same hour studying calculus is easier for me than it would be for Usain Bolt. So in the end our equilibrium effort isn’t the same—but rather than compensating, this effect only serves to exaggerate the difference in innate talent between us.

It’s simple enough to generalize the model to allow for such a thing. For instance, I could say that the cost of producing a unit of effort is inversely proportional to your talent; then instead of hx / ( hx + hz ), in equilibrium the probability of X succeeding would become hx2 / ( hx2 + hz2). The equilibrium effort would also be different, with x > z if hx > hz.

Once we acknowledge that talent is genuinely important, we face an ethical problem. Do we want to reward people for their accomplishment (A), or for their effort (B)? There are good cases to be made for each.

Rewarding for accomplishment, which we might call meritocracy,will tend to, well, maximize accomplishment. We’ll get the best basketball players playing basketball, the best surgeons doing surgery. Moreover, accomplishment is often quite easy to measure, even when effort isn’t.

Rewarding for effort, which we might call egalitarianism, will give people the most control over their lives, and might well feel the most fair. Those who succeed will be precisely those who work hard, even if they do things they are objectively bad at. Even people who are born with very little talent will still be able to make a living by working hard. And it will ensure that people do work hard, which meritocracy can actually fail at: If you are extremely talented, you don’t really need to work hard because you just automatically succeed.

Capitalism, as an economic system, is very good at rewarding accomplishment. I think part of what makes socialism appealing to so many people is that it tries to reward effort instead. (Is it very good at that? Not so clear.)

The more extreme differences are actually in terms of disability. There’s a certain baseline level of activities that most people are capable of, which we think of as “normal”: most people can talk; most people can run, if not necessarily very fast; most people can throw a ball, if not pitch a proper curveball. But some people can’t throw. Some people can’t run. Some people can’t even talk. It’s not that they are bad at it; it’s that they are literally not capable of it. No amount of effort could have made Stephen Hawking into a baseball player—not even a bad one.

It’s these cases when I think egalitarianism becomes most appealing: It just seems deeply unfair that people with severe disabilities should have to suffer in poverty. Even if they really can’t do much productive work on their own, it just seems wrong not to help them, at least enough that they can get by. But capitalism by itself absolutely would not do that—if you aren’t making a profit for the company, they’re not going to keep you employed. So we need some kind of social safety net to help such people. And it turns out that such people are quite numerous, and our current system is really not adequate to help them.

But meritocracy has its pull as well. Especially when the job is really important—like surgery, not so much basketball—we really want the highest quality work. It’s not so important whether the neurosurgeon who removes your tumor worked really hard at it or found it a breeze; what we care about is getting that tumor out.

Where does this leave us?

I think we have no choice but to compromise, on both principles. We will reward both effort and accomplishment, to greater or lesser degree—perhaps varying based on circumstances. We will never be able to entirely reward accomplishment or entirely reward effort.

This is more or less what we already do in practice, so why worry about it? Well, because we don’t like to admit that it’s what we do in practice, and a lot of problems seem to stem from that.

We have people acting like billionaires are such brilliant, hard-working people just because they’re rich—because our society rewards effort, right? So they couldn’t be so successful if they didn’t work so hard, right? Right?

Conversely, we have people who denigrate the poor as lazy and stupid just because they are poor. Because it couldn’t possibly be that their circumstances were worse than yours? Or hey, even if they are genuinely less talented than you—do less talented people deserve to be homeless and starving?

We tell kids from a young age, “You can be whatever you want to be”, and “Work hard and you’ll succeed”; and these things simply aren’t true. There are limitations on what you can achieve through effort—limitations imposed by your environment, and limitations imposed by your innate talents.

I’m not saying we should crush children’s dreams; I’m saying we should help them to build more realistic dreams, dreams that can actually be achieved in the real world. And then, when they grow up, they either will actually succeed, or when they don’t, at least they won’t hate themselves for failing to live up to what you told them they’d be able to do.

If you were wondering why Millennials are so depressed, that’s clearly a big part of it: We were told we could be and do whatever we wanted if we worked hard enough, and then that didn’t happen; and we had so internalized what we were told that we thought it had to be our fault that we failed. We didn’t try hard enough. We weren’t good enough. I have spent years feeling this way—on some level I do still feel this way—and it was not because adults tried to crush my dreams when I was a child, but on the contrary because they didn’t do anything to temper them. They never told me that life is hard, and people fail, and that I would probably fail at my most ambitious goals—and it wouldn’t be my fault, and it would still turn out okay.

That’s really it, I think: They never told me that it’s okay not to be wildly successful. They never told me that I’d still be good enough even if I never had any great world-class accomplishments. Instead, they kept feeding me the lie that I would have great world-class accomplishments; and then, when I didn’t, I felt like a failure and I hated myself. I think my own experience may be particularly extreme in this regard, but I know a lot of other people in my generation who had similar experiences, especially those who were also considered “gifted” as children. And we are all now suffering from depression, anxiety, and Impostor Syndrome.

All because nobody wanted to admit that talent, effort, and success are not the same thing.

Working from home is the new normal—sort of

Aug 28 JDN 2459820

Among people with jobs that can be done remotely, a large majority did in fact switch to doing their jobs remotely: By the end of 2020, over 70% of Americans with jobs that could be done remotely were working from home—and most of them said they didn’t want to go back.

This is actually what a lot of employers expected to happen—just not quite like this. In 2014, a third of employers predicted that the majority of their workforce would be working remotely by 2020; given the timeframe there, it required a major shock to make that happen so fast, and yet a major shock was what we had.

Working from home has carried its own challenges, but overall productivity seems to be higher working remotely (that meeting really could have been an email!). This may actually explain why output per work hour actually rose rapidly in 2020 and fell in 2022.

The COVID pandemic now isn’t so much over as becoming permanent; COVID is now being treated as an endemic infection like influenza that we don’t expect to be able to eradicate in the foreseeable future.

And likewise, remote work seems to be here to stay—sort of.

First of all, we don’t seem to be giving up office work entirely. As of the first quarter 2022, almost as many firms have partially remote work as have fully remote work, and this seems to be trending upward. A lot of firms seem to be transitioning into a “hybrid” model where employees show up to work two or three days a week. This seems to be preferred by large majorities of both workers and firms.

There is a significant downside of this: It means that the hope that remote working might finally ease the upward pressure on housing prices in major cities is largely a false one. If we were transitioning to a fully remote system, then people could live wherever they want (or can afford) and there would be no reason to move to overpriced city centers. But if you have to show up to work even one day a week, that means you need to live close enough to the office to manage that commute.

Likewise, if workers never came to the office, you could sell the office building and convert it into more housing. But if they show up even once in awhile, you need a physical place for them to go. Some firms may shrink their office space (indeed, many have—and unlike this New York Times journalist, I have a really hard time feeling bad for landlords of office buildings); but they aren’t giving it up entirely. It’s possible that firms could start trading off—you get the building on Mondays, we get it on Tuesdays—but so far this seems to be rare, and it does raise a lot of legitimate logistical and security concerns. So our global problem of office buildings that are empty, wasted space most of the time is going to get worse, not better. Manhattan will still empty out every night; it just won’t fill up as much during the day. This is honestly a major drain on our entire civilization—building and maintaining all those structures that are only used at most 1/3 of 5/7 of the time, and soon, less—and we really should stop ignoring it. No wonder our real estate is so expensive, when half of it is only used 20% of the time!

Moreover, not everyone gets to work remotely. Your job must be something that can be done remotely—something that involves dealing with information, not physical objects. That includes a wide and ever-growing range of jobs, from artists and authors to engineers and software developers—but it doesn’t include everyone. It basically means what we call “white-collar” work.

Indeed, it is largely limited to the upper-middle class. The rich never really worked anyway, though sometimes they pretend to, convincing themselves that managing a stock portfolio (that would actually grow faster if they let it sit) constitutes “work”. And the working class? By and large, they didn’t get the chance to work remotely. While 73% of workers with salaries above $200,000 worked remotely in 2020, only 12% of workers with salaries under $25,000 did, and there is a smooth trend where, across the board, the more money you make, the more likely you have been able to work remotely.

This will only intensify the divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers. They already think we don’t do “real work”; now we don’t even go to work. And while blue-collar workers are constantly complaining about contempt from white-collar elites, I think the shoe is really on the other foot. I have met very few white-collar workers who express contempt for blue-collar workers—and I have met very few blue-collar workers who don’t express anger and resentment toward white-collar workers. I keep hearing blue-collar people say that we think that they are worthless and incompetent, when they are literally the only ones ever saying that. I can’t stop saying things that I never said.

The rich and powerful may look down on them, but they look down on everyone. (Maybe they look down on blue-collar workers more? I’m not even sure about that.) I think politicians sometimes express contempt for blue-collar workers, but I don’t think this reflects what most white-collar workers feel.

And the highly-educated may express some vague sense of pity or disappointment in people who didn’t get college degrees, and sometimes even anger (especially when they do things like vote for Donald Trump), but the really vitriolic hatred is clearly in the opposite direction (indeed, I have no better explanation for how otherwise-sane people could vote for Donald Trump). And I certainly wouldn’t say that everyone needs a college degree (though I became tempted to, when so many people without college degrees voted for Donald Trump).

This really isn’t us treating them with contempt: This is them having a really severe inferiority complex. And as information technology (that white-collar work created) gives us—but not them—the privilege of staying home, that is only going to get worse.

It’s not their fault: Our culture of meritocracy puts a little bit of inferiority complex in all of us. It tells us that success and failure are our own doing, and so billionaires deserve to have everything and the poor deserve to have nothing. And blue-collar workers have absolutely internalized these attitudes: Most of them believe that poor people choose to stay on welfare forever rather than get jobs (when welfare has time limits and work requirements, so this is simply not an option—and you would know this from the Wikipedia page on TANF).

I think that what they experience as “contempt by white-collar elites” is really the pain of living in an illusory meritocracy. They were told—and they came to believe—that working hard would bring success, and they have worked very hard, and watched other people be much more successful. They assume that the rich and powerful are white-collar workers, when really they are non-workers; they are people the world was handed to on a silver platter. (What, you think George W. Bush earned his admission to Yale?)

And thus, we can shout until we are blue in the face that plumbers, bricklayers and welders are the backbone of civilization—and they are, and I absolutely mean that; our civilization would, in an almost literal sense, collapse without them—but it won’t make any difference. They’ll still feel the pain of living in a society that gave them very little and tells them that people get what they deserve.

I don’t know what to say to such people, though. When your political attitudes are based on beliefs that are objectively false, that you could know are objectively false if you simply bothered to look them up… what exactly am I supposed to say to you? How can we have a useful political conversation when half the country doesn’t even believe in fact-checking?

Honestly I wish someone had explained to them that even the most ideal meritocratic capitalism wouldn’t reward hard work. Work is a cost, not a benefit, and the whole point of technological advancement is to allow us to accomplish more with less work. The ideal capitalism would reward talent—you would succeed by accomplishing things, regardless of how much effort you put into them. People would be rich mainly because they are brilliant, not because they are hard-working. The closest thing we have to ideal capitalism right now is probably professional sports. And no amount of effort could ever possibly make me into Steph Curry.

If that isn’t the world we want to live in, so be it; let’s do something else. I did nothing to earn either my high IQ or my chronic migraines, so it really does feel unfair that the former increases my income while the latter decreases it. But the labor theory of value has always been wrong; taking more sweat or more hours to do the same thing is worse, not better. The dignity of labor consists in its accomplishment, not its effort. Sisyphus is not happy, because his work is pointless.

Honestly at this point I think our best bet is just to replace all blue-collar work with automation, thus rendering it all moot. And then maybe we can all work remotely, just pushing code patches to the robots that do everything. (And no doubt this will prove my “contempt”: I want to replace you! No, I want to replace the grueling work that you have been forced to do to make a living. I want you—the human being—to be able to do something more fun with your life, even if that’s just watching television and hanging out with friends.)

If I had a trillion dollars…

May 29 JDN 2459729

(To the tune of “If I had a million dollars” by Barenaked Ladies; by the way, he does now)

[Inspired by the book How to Spend a Trillion Dollars]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d buy everyone a house—and yes, I mean, every homeless American.

[500,000 homeless households * $300,000 median home price = $150 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d give to the extreme poor—and then there would be no extreme poor!

[Global poverty gap: $160 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d send people to Mars—hey, maybe we’d find some alien life!

[Estimated cost of manned Mars mission: $100 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d build us a Moon base—haven’t you always wanted a Moon base?

[Estimated cost of a permanent Lunar base: $35 billion. NASA is bad at forecasting cost, so let’s allow cost overruns to take us to $100 billion.]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d build a new particle accelerator—let’s finally figure out dark matter!

[Cost of planned new accelerator at CERN: $24 billion. Let’s do 4 times bigger and make it $100 billion.]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had a trillion dollars!

I’d save the Amazon—pay all the ranchers to do something else!

[Brazil, where 90% of Amazon cattle ranching is, produces about 10 million tons of beef per year, which at an average price of $5000 per ton is $50 billion. So I could pay all the farmers two years of revenue to protect the Amazon instead of destroying it for $100 billion.]

If I had a trillion dollars…

We wouldn’t have to drive anymore!

If I had a trillion dollars…

We’d build high-speed rail—it won’t cost more!

[Cost of proposed high-speed rail system: $240 billion]

If I had a trillion dollars… if I had trillion dollars!

Hey wait, I could get it from a carbon tax!

[Even a moderate carbon tax could raise $1 trillion in 10 years.]

If I had a trillion dollars… I’d save the world….

All of the above really could be done for under $1 trillion. (Some of them would need to be repeated, so we could call it $1 trillion per year.)

I, of course, do not, and will almost certainly never have, anything approaching $1 trillion.

But here’s the thing: There are people who do.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos together have a staggering $350 billion. That’s two people with enough money to end world hunger. And don’t give me that old excuse that it’s not in cash: UNICEF gladly accepts donations in stock. They could, right now, give their stocks to UNICEF and thereby end world hunger. They are choosing not to do that. In fact, the goodwill generated by giving, say, half their stocks to UNICEF might actually result in enough people buying into their companies that their stock prices would rise enough to make up the difference—thus costing them literally nothing.

The total net wealth of all the world’s billionaires is a mind-boggling $12.7 trillion. That’s more than half a year of US GDP. Held by just over 2600 people—a small town.

The US government spends $4 trillion in a normal year—and $5 trillion the last couple of years due to the pandemic. Nearly $1 trillion of that is military spending, which could be cut in half and still be the highest in the world. After seeing how pathetic Russia’s army actually is in battle (they paint Zs on their tanks because apparently their IFF system is useless!), are we really still scared of them? Do we really need eleven carrier battle groups?

Yes, the total cost of mitigating climate change is probably in the tens of trillions—but the cost of not mitigating climate change could be over $100 trillion. And it’s not as if the world can’t come up with tens of trillions; we already do. World GDP is now over $100 trillion per year; just 2% of that for 10 years is $20 trillion.

Do these sound like good ideas to you? Would you want to do them? I think most people would want most of them. So now the question becomes: Why aren’t we doing them?

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.