The injustice of positional goods

July 15 JDN 2458315

At Disneyland, you can now buy a special pass that will let you skip ahead in line. On several airlines including American, Delta, Spirit, and Southwest, you can pay extra to be allowed to board before other passengers (which has been particularly salient for me on the many flights I’ve been taking this summer). This is only an extreme form of a long-standing phenomenon: Since the beginning of commercial ship and train travel, there have been first-class and second-class tickets.

I don’t have any formal survey data on the matter, but just about everyone I have spoken to about such policies is at least vaguely uncomfortable with them, if not totally outraged. The exception is other economists, who typically don’t express any concern whatsoever. “People are willing to pay for this service because they value it,” they say; “so what’s the problem?”

On this one, I think the economists are wrong and everyone else is right. There is something different about this sort of service.

Part of the difference between first-class and second-class is in actual quality of services that actually incur additional costs (I hate to break it to you, but legroom on an aircraft is just such an example; every inch of legroom on each seat is another row of seats they can’t have, which is another $2000 or so they don’t get in revenue on each and every flight). But part of it is something else, something that costs the company literally nothing.

This makes early boarding a clearer example. What are you buying when you pay for early boarding? On most airlines, it’s not even a better seat; your seat is pre-assigned (Southwest is an exception). We could say you are paying for extra time, but that’s not really even true; the plane leaves at the same time for everyone. From your perspective, you are paying for convenience; you get to settle in on the plane, maybe get started working or whatever, before everyone else. Maybe you’d rather wait on the plane than wait in the airport (though frankly I’m not sure why; the airport has restaurants and comfortable restrooms).

What you are really buying is position. Early boarding is a positional good. Every person who gets bumped forward in the queue is someone else who is bumped backward. The net benefit for all customers as a whole is precisely zero, as is the cost for the company to provide it—and yet, it still has a positive price! This is impressive economic alchemy: The airline has managed to take something with zero marginal cost and zero marginal benefit, and still make money off of it. They have transmuted the lead of something costless and worthless into the gold of profit.

They achieve this by pitting customers against one another. In a post awhile back I talked about rent-seeking, such as lobbying and advertising. Usually it’s the corporations doing the rent-seeking, but early boarding and queue-jumping are examples of corporations intentionally generating a circumstances where they can obtain revenue from the rent-seeking of others.

To be fair, there might be some welfare gains to be had from auctioning off order in a queue. Some people have genuinely higher costs of time than others (a cardiac surgeon’s time is particularly important, for example), and an auction could potentially order people who have very high cost of time first.

But this argument is much weaker than it may at first appear, because people also have very different marginal utility of wealth, and indeed I think the correlation between your willingness to pay for time and your total wealth is considerably higher than the correlation between your willingness-to-pay for time and your actual real cost in terms of pain and suffering.

This is a more general problem, as I’ve discussed in previous posts; but I think it’s especially acute in the case of time, because real cost of time doesn’t actually vary all that much between most people. The reason poor people take buses and rich people take limousines isn’t because poor people don’t care about their time; it’s because they can’t afford limousines. A cardiac surgeon and an economist could very well have the same salary and the same willingness-to-pay for time, but people rarely die when an economist turns up an hour late. (It’s not that our work isn’t important—actually a good development economist can save far more lives than any cardiac surgeon—but it’s not nearly so urgent.) Also, consider the fact that teachers and social workers generally contribute a good deal more to society than derivatives traders (and thus, from a social welfare perspective, their time should be considered more valuable), but they are far less likely to pay for first-class seats. In fact, a first-come, first-served method actually seems better than an auction from a social welfare perspective: If your time is really important to you, you’re more likely to go out of your way to check in as soon as you can. That costly signal provides a sorting mechanism which relies directly upon real costs of time, rather than indirectly via monetary willingness-to-pay.

And of course when it comes to Disneyland, this argument utterly fails; I see little reason to think that a cardiac surgeon’s vacation time is substantially more valuable to society. (Don’t get me wrong; surgeons need and deserve vacation time—but if they get too much, their performance actually suffers!) So maybe paying for a place in queue isn’t completely rent-seeking, but it’s pretty close.

That is why paying for positional goods feels unjust to most people: Because it is. Charging a price for positional goods is a means of extracting profit from customers without providing any (net) real service. It’s a way of applying price discrimination without even having much monopoly power. If another airline doesn’t let you pay to skip ahead in the queue, you have a slightly lower expected wait time on that other airline, but any revenue they lose from charging a bit less for economy tickets can be easily made up by charging more for the front of the line.

For example, if the first 10% of the line on airline A is decided by selling spots, while airline B chooses at random, and the average time waiting in line to board is 30 minutes, the expected wait times are as follows. Fly airline A and don’t buy a spot: 16.5 minutes. Fly airline A and buy a spot: 1.5 minutes. Fly airline B: 15 minutes. Those 10% are paying for, on average, 13.5 minutes; but you’re only gaining 1.5 minutes. Of course, there are more people waiting that extra 1.5 minutes than saving those 13.5 minutes (9 times as many, in fact). If the per-minute willingness-to-pay were exactly the same, the airline would break even; but they know of course that the willingness-to-pay of that top 10% is considerably higher than that of most of the bottom 90%. If they have any market power at all (which they generally do, by being the only airline serving certain routes, offering loyalty benefits, etc.), they can squeeze out even more profit.

They may even sometimes go out of their way to make life miserable for those who don’t pay extra, increasing the incentive to pay extra. This requires some market power to pull off, but as I said, they often have that. Most airlines don’t offer power outlets at every seat, for example. This is not a serious question of installation cost or even power consumption. We’re talking about a few hundred dollars on an aircraft that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, or a few kilowatts from a system that can generate over one hundred megawatts (of course most of it is used for propulsion, but adding an alternator that would generate an extra few kilowatts of electrical power would still not be difficult or expensive). This is a way of making life worse for the economy-class passengers so they have a stronger incentive to pay for upgraded tickets.

It’s not always easy to tell what is a positional good: First-class seats are ambiguous, for example. But I think a good heuristic is to ask, “Could everyone benefit from this?” If the answer is “No, even in principle”, then you are definitely dealing with a positional good. Not everyone can be first in line at Disneyland. Not everyone can board the plane first. In theory at least, everyone could be provided the same legroom and meal service as a first-class ticket (it would be expensive, but not impossible), so that is at least in part not a positional good.

The “pay-to-win” effect of some video game downloadable content (DLC) is also a positional good, which we can see by the above heuristic: If everyone pays to have the best gun in the game, there’s no point in having the best gun in the game. This is why gamers are rightfully outraged by “pay-to-win” effects, but typically have no objection to paying for DLC that provides them with extra game content (such as new characters, locations, or missions) or cosmetic upgrades (hats, decorations, and “skins”). Personally I tend to think that most DLC is overpriced, and succeeds at being so due to a kind of monopoly power (Mass Effect DLC doesn’t work on Skyrim or vice-versa) but I certainly don’t object to the basic idea of charging additional money for additional content. The reason we object to “pay-to-win” is not that winning the game is so important; it’s that this business model is so obviously a form of rent extraction. (It’s interesting that gamers in China don’t seem to be as bothered by “pay-to-win” as gamers in the US; this runs counter to the standard narrative that American people are competitive capitalists and Chinese people are collectivist socialists, don’t you think?)

There may be some circumstances in which we have no choice but to allow corporations to charge prices for positional goods—especially if we can’t tell whether we are dealing with a positional good or not. But it would not be very difficult to draft legislation that would at least reduce such business practices: We could simply use my “Could everyone benefit?” heuristic. If a business charges money for something that even in principle they could not possibly provide all of their customers, they are charging a price for a positional good, and should be penalized. The benefits of such a policy would be relatively small, but the costs would be even smaller. If we are really concerned about letting cardiac surgeons board aircraft faster (we should really be concerned about deboarding faster—and especially faster security screening!), we could make such a rule that applies to particular classes of high-urgency professions; we don’t need to allow airlines to extract millions of dollars in rent by pitting their customers against each other.

Most trade barriers are not tariffs

Jul 8 JDN 2458309

When we talk about “protectionism” or “trade barriers”, what usually comes to mind is tariffs: taxes imposed on imports or exports. But especially now that international trade organizations have successfully reduced tariffs around the world, most trade barriers are not of this form at all.

Especially in highly-developed countries, but really almost everywhere, the most common trade barriers are what is simply but inelegantly called non-tariff barriers to trade: this includes licenses, quotas, subsidies, bailout guarantees, labeling requirements, and even some environmental regulations.

Non-tariff barriers are much more complicated to deal with, for at least three reasons.

First, with the exception of quotas and subsidies, non-tariff barriers are not easily quantifiable. We can easily put a number on the value of a tariff (though its impact is somewhat subtler than that), but this is not so easy for the effect of a bailout guarantee or a labeling requirement.

Second, non-tariff barriers are often much harder to detect. It’s obvious enough that imposing a tax on imported steel will reduce our imports of steel; but it requires a deeper understanding of the trade system to understand why bailing out domestic banks would distort financial flows, interest rates and exchange rates (even though the impact of this may actually be larger—the effect on global trade of US bank bailouts was between $35 billion and $110 billion).

Third, some trade barriers are either justifiable or simply inevitable. Simply having customs screening at the border is a non-tariff barrier, but it is widely regarded as a justifiable security measure (and I agree, by the way, even though I am generally in favor of much more open borders). Requiring strict labor and environmental standards on the production of products both domestic and imported is highly beneficial, but also imposes a trade barrier. In a broader sense, differences in language and culture could even be regarded as trade barriers (they certainly increase the real cost of trade), but it’s not clear that we could eliminate such things even if we wanted to.

This requires us to look very closely at almost every major government policy, to see how it might be distorting world trade. Some policies won’t meaningfully distort trade at all; these are not trade barriers. Others will distort trade, but are beneficial enough in other ways that they are still worth it; these are justifiable trade barriers. Still others will distort trade so much that they cannot be justified despite their other benefits. Finally, some policies will be put in place more or less explicitly to distort trade, usually in the form of protectionism to prop up domestic industries.

Protectionist policies are of course the first things to get rid of. Honestly, it baffles me that people even want to impose them in the first place. For some reason they think of exports as the benefit and imports as the cost, when it’s really the other way around; when we impose protectionism, we go out of our way to make it harder to get cars and iPhones so that we can stop other countries from taking our green paper. This seems to be tied to the fact that people think of jobs as something desirable, when really it’s wealth that’s desirable, and jobs are just one way of getting wealth—in some sense the most expensive way. Our macroeconomic policy obsesses over inflation, which is almost literally meaningless (as long as it is not too unpredictable, really nothing would change if inflation were raised from 2% to 4% or even 10%) and unemployment, which is at best an imperfect indicator of what we really should care about, namely the welfare of our people. A world of full employment with poverty wages is much worse than a world of high unemployment where a basic income provides for everyone’s needs. It is true that in our current system, unemployment is closely tied to a lot of very bad outcomes—but I maintain that this is largely because unemployment entails losing your income and your healthcare.

Some regulations that appear benign may actually be harmful because of their effects on trade. Yet I should also point out that it’s possible to go too far the other direction, and start tearing down all regulations in the name of reducing trade barriers. We particularly seem to do this in the financial industry, where “deregulation” seems to be on everyone’s lips until it causes a crisis, then we impose some regulations that fix the worst problems, things look good for awhile—and then we go back around and everyone starts talking about “deregulation” again. Meanwhile, the same people who talk about “freedom” as an excuse for removing financial safeguards are the ones who lock up children at the border. I think this is something that needs to be reframed: Which regulations are you removing? Just what, exactly, are you making legal that wasn’t before? Legalizing murder would be “deregulation”.

Trade policy, therefore, is a very delicate balance, between removing distortions and protecting legitimate public interests, between the needs of your own country and the world as a whole. This is why we need this whole apparatus of international trade institutions; it’s not a simple matter.

But I will say this: It would probably help if people educated themselves a bit more about how trade actually works before voting in politicians who promise to “save their jobs” from foreign competition.

The housing shortage is an international phenomenon

Jul 1 JDN 2458301

My posts for the next couple of weeks are going to be shorter, since I am in Europe and will be either on vacation (at the time I write this) or busy with a conference and a workshop (by the time this post goes live).

For today, I’d just like to point out that the crisis of extremely high housing prices is not unique to California or even the United States. In some respects it may even be worse elsewhere.

San Francisco remains especially bad; the median price for a home in San Francisco is a horrifying $1.6 million.

But London (where I am at the time of writing) is also terrible; the median price for a home in London recently fell to 430,000 pounds (about $600,000 at current exchange rates). The most expensive flat—not house, flat—sold a couple years ago for the mind-boggling sum of 150 million pounds (about $200 million). If I had $200 million, I would definitely not use it to buy a flat. At that point it would literally be cheaper to buy a yacht with a helipad, park it in the harbor, and commute by helicopter. Here’s a yacht with a helipad for only $20 million, and a helicopter to go with it for $6 million. That leaves $174 million; keep $20 million in stocks to be independently wealthy for the rest of your life, and then donate the remaining $154 million to charity.

The median price of a house in Vancouver stands at 1.1 million Canadian dollars, about $830,000 US.

A global comparison finds that on a per-square-meter basis, the most expensive real estate in the world is in Monaco, where $1 million US will only buy you 15 square meters. The remaining cities in the top 10 are Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Geneva, New York, Sydney, Paris, Moscow, and Shanghai.

There is astonishing variation in the level of housing prices, even within countries. Some of the most affordable markets in the US (like San Antonio and Oklahoma City) cost as little as $80 per square foot; that means that $1 million would buy you 1,160 square meters. That’s not an error; real estate in Monaco is literally 77 times more expensive than real estate in Oklahoma City. 15 square meters is a studio apartment; 1,160 square meters is a small mansion. Just comparing within the US, the price per square foot in San Francisco is over $1,120, 14 times as high as Oklahoma City. $1 million in San Francisco will buy you about 80 square meters, which is at least a two or three-bedroom house.

This says to me that policy choices matter. It may not be possible to make San Francisco as cheap as Oklahoma City—most people would definitely rather live in San Francisco, so demand is always going to be higher there. But I don’t think it’s very plausible to say that housing is just inherently 14 times as expensive to construct as housing in Oklahoma City. If it’s really that much more expensive to construct (and that may not even be the issue—this could be more a matter of oligopoly than high costs), it must be at least in part because of something the local and state governments are doing differently. Cross-national comparisons underscore that point even further: The geography of Hong Kong and Taiwan is not that different, but housing prices in Taiwan are not nearly as high.

What exactly are different cities (and countries) doing differently that has such large effects on housing prices? That’s something I’ll try to figure out in future posts.

Downsides of rent control

May 13 JDN 2458252

One of the largest ideological divides between economists and the rest of the population concerns rent control.

Tent control is very popular among the general population, especially in California—with support hovering around 60% in Orange County, San Diego County, and across California in general. About 60% of people in the UK and over 50% in Ontario, Canada also support rent control.

Meanwhile, economists overwhelmingly oppose rent control: When evaluating the statement “A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.”, over 76% of economists agreed, and 16% agreed with qualifications. For the record, I would be an “agree with qualifications” as well (as they say, there are few one-handed economists).

There is evidence of some benefits of rent control, at least for the small number of people who can actually manage to stay in rent-controlled units. People who live in rent-controlled units are about 15% more likely to stay where they are, even in places as expensive as San Francisco, which could be considered a good thing (though I’m not convinced it always is; mobility is one of the key forces driving the dynamism of the US economy).

But there are winners and losers. Landlords whose properties are rent-controlled decreased their supply of housing by an average of 15%, via a combination of converting them to condos, removing them from the market, or demolishing the buildings outright. As a result, rent control increases average rent in a city by an average of 5%. One of the most effective ways to get out of rent control is to remove a building from the market entirely; this allows you to evict all of your tenants with very little notice, and is responsible for thousands of tenants being evicted every year in Los Angeles.

Rent control disincentivizes both new housing construction and the proper maintenance of existing housing. The quality of rent-controlled homes is systematically lower than the quality of other homes.

The benefits of rent control mainly fall upon the upper-middle class, not the poor. Rent control can make an area more racially diverse—but it benefits middle-class members of racial minorities, not poor members. Most of the benefits of rent control go to older families who have lived in a city for a long time—which makes them a transfer of wealth away from young people.

Cities such as Chicago without rent control systematically have lower rents, not higher; partly this is a cause, rather than an effect, as tenants are less likely to panic and demand rent control when rents are not high. But it’s also an effect, as rent control holds down the price in part of the market but ends up driving it up in the rest. Over 40% of San Francisco’s apartments are rent-controlled, and they have the highest rents in the world.

Rent control also contributes to the tendency toward building high-end luxury apartments; if you know that you will never be able to raise the rent on your existing buildings, and may end up being stuck with whatever rent you charge the first year on your new buildings, you have a strong reason to want to charge as much as possible the first year you build new apartments. Rent control also creates subtler distortions in the size and location of apartment construction. The effects of rent control even spill over into other housing markets, such as owner-occupied homes and mobile homes.
Because it locks people into place and reduces the construction of new homes near city centers, rent control increases commute times and carbon emissions. This is probably something we should especially point out to people in California, as the two things Californians hate most are environmental degradation and traffic congestion. (Then again, the third is high rent.) California is good at avoiding the first one—our GDP/carbon emission ratio is near the best in the US. The other two? Not so much.

Of course, simply removing rent control would not immediately solve the housing shortage; while it would probably have benefits in the long run, during the transition period a lot of people currently protected by rent control would lose their homes. Even in the long run, it would probably not be enough to actually make rent affordable in the largest coastal cities.

But it’s vital not to confuse “lower rent” with “rent control”; there are much, much better ways to reduce rent prices than simply enforcing arbitrary caps on them.

We have learned not to use price controls in other markets, but not housing for some reason. Think about the gasoline market, for example. High gas prices are very politically unpopular (though frankly I never quite understood why; it’s a tiny fraction of consumption expenditure, and if we ever want to make a dent in our carbon emissions we need to make our gas prices much higher), but imagine how ridiculous it would seem for a politician to propose simply making an arbitrary cap that says you aren’t allowed to sell gasoline for more than $2.50 per gallon in a particular city. The obvious outcome would be for most gas stations in that city to immediately close, and everyone to end up buying their gas at the new gas stations that spring up just outside the city limits charging $4.00 per gallon. This is basically what happens in the housing market: Rent-controlled apartments apartments are taken off the market, and the new housing that is built ends up even more expensive.

In a future post, I’ll discuss things we can do instead of rent control that would reliably make housing more affordable. Most of these would involve additional government spending; but there are two things I’d like to say about that. First, we are already spending this money, we just don’t see it, because it comes in the form of inefficiencies and market distortions instead of a direct expenditure. Second, do we really care about making housing affordable, or not? If we really care, we should be willing to spend money on it. If we aren’t willing to spend money on it, then we must not really care.

Forget the Doughnut. Meet the Wedge.

Mar 11 JDN 2458189

I just finished reading Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist; Raworth also has a whole website dedicated to the concept of the Doughnut as a way of rethinking economics.

The book is very easy to read, and manages to be open to a wide audience with only basic economics knowledge without feeling patronizing or condescending. Most of the core ideas are fundamentally sound, though Raworth has a way of making it sound like she is being revolutionary even when most mainstream economists already agree with the core ideas.

For example, she makes it sound like it is some sort of dogma among neoclassical economists that GDP growth must continue at the same pace forever. As I discussed in an earlier post, the idea that growth will slow down is not radical in economics—it is basically taken for granted in the standard neoclassical growth models.

Even the core concept of the Doughnut isn’t all that radical. It’s based on the recognition that economic development is necessary to end poverty, but resources are not unlimited. Then combine that with two key assumptions: GDP growth requires growth in energy consumption, and growth in energy consumption requires increased carbon emissions. Then, the goal should be to stay within a certain range: We want to be high enough to not have poverty, but low enough to not exceed our carbon budget.

Why a doughnut? That’s… actually a really good question. The concept Raworth presents is a fundamentally one-dimensional object; there’s no reason for it to be doughnut-shaped. She could just as well have drawn it on a single continuum, with poverty at one end, unsustainability at the other end, and a sweet spot in the middle. The doughnut shape adds some visual appeal, but no real information.

But the fundamental assumptions that GDP requires energy and energy requires carbon emissions are simply false—especially the second one. Always keep one thing in mind whenever you’re reading something by environmentalists telling you we need to reduce economic output to save the Earth: Nuclear power does not produce carbon emissions.

This is how the environmentalist movement has shot itself—and the world—in the foot for the last 50 years. They continually refuse to admit that nuclear power is the best hope we have for achieving both economic development and ecological sustainability. They have let their political biases cloud their judgment on what is actually best for humanity’s future.

I will give Raworth some credit for not buying into the pipe dream that we can somehow transition rapidly to an entirely solar and wind-based power grid—renewables only produce 6% of world energy (the most they ever have), while nuclear produces 10%. And nuclear power certainly has its downsides, particularly in its high cost of construction. It may in fact be the case that we need to reduce economic output somewhat, particularly in the very richest countries, and if so, we need to find a way to do that without causing social and political collapse.

The Dougnut is a one-dimensional object glorified by a two-dimensional diagram.

So let me present you with an actual two-dimensional object, which I call the Wedge.

On this graph, the orange dots plot actual GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) on the X axis against actual CO2 emissions per capita on the Y-axis. The green horizonal line is a CO2 emission target of 3 tonnes per person per year based on reports from the International Panel on Climate Change.

Wedge_full

As you can see, most countries are above the green line. That’s bad. We need the whole world below that green line. The countries that are below the line are largely poor countries, with a handful of middle-income countries mixed in.

But it’s the blue diagonal line that really makes this graph significant, what makes it the Wedge. That line uses Switzerland’s level of efficiency to estimate a frontier of what’s possible. Switzerland’s ratio of GDP to CO2 is the best in the world, among countries where the data actually looks reliable. A handful of other countries do better in the data, but for some (Macau) it’s obviously due to poor counting of indirect emissions and for others (Rwanda, Chad, Burundi) we just don’t have good data at all. I think Switzerland’s efficiency level of $12,000 per ton of CO2 is about as good as can be reasonably expected for most countries over the long run.

Our goal should be to move as far right on the graph as we can (toward higher levels of economic development), but always staying inside this Wedge: Above the green line, our CO2 emissions are too high. Below the blue line may not be technologically feasible (though of course it’s worth a try). We want to aim for the point of the wedge, where GDP is as high as possible but emissions are still below safe targets.

Zooming in on the graph gives a better view of the Wedge.

Wedge_zoomed

The point of the Wedge is about $38,000 per person per year. This is not as rich as the US, but it’s definitely within the range of highly-developed countries. This is about the same standard of living as Italy, Spain, or South Korea. In fact, all three of these countries exceed their targets; the closest I was able to find to a country actually hitting the point of the wedge was Latvia, at $27,300 and 3.5 tonnes per person per year. Uruguay also does quite well at $22,400 and 2.2 tonnes per person per year.

Some countries are within the Wedge; a few, like Uruguay, quite close to the point, and many, like Colombia and Bangladesh, that are below and to the left. For these countries, a “stay the course” policy is the way to go: If they keep up what they are doing, they can continue to experience economic growth without exceeding their emission targets.

 

But the most important thing about the graph is not actually the Wedge itself: It’s all the countries outside the Wedge, and where they are outside the Wedge.

There are some countries, like Sweden, France, and Switzerland, that are close to the blue line but still outside the Wedge because they are too far to the right. These are countries for whom “degrowth” policies might actually make sense: They are being as efficient in their use of resources as may be technologically feasible, but are simply producing too much output. They need to find a way to scale back their economies without causing social and political collapse. My suggestion, for what it’s worth, is progressive taxation. In addition to carbon taxes (which are a no-brainer), make income taxes so high that they start actually reducing GDP, and do so without fear, since that’s part of the point; then redistribute all the income as evenly as possible so that lower total income comes with much lower inequality and the eradication of poverty. Most of the country will then be no worse off than they were, so social and political unrest seems unlikely. Call it “socialism” if you like, but I’m not suggesting collectivization of industry or the uprising of the proletariat; I just want everyone to adopt the income tax rates the US had in the 1950s.

But most countries are not even close to the blue line; they are well above it. In all these countries, the goal should not be to reduce economic output, but to increase the carbon efficiency of that output. Increased efficiency has no downside (other than the transition cost to implement it): It makes you better off ecologically without making you worse off economically. Bahrain has about the same GDP per capita as Sweden but produces over five times the per-capita carbon emissions. Simply by copying Sweden they could reduce their emissions by almost 19 tonnes per person per year, which is more than the per-capita output of the US (and we’re hardly models of efficiency)—at absolutely no cost in GDP.

Then there are countries like Mongolia, which produces only $12,500 in GDP but 14.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. Mongolia is far above and to the left of the point of the Wedge, meaning that they could both increase their GDP and decrease their emissions by adopting the model of more efficient countries. Telling these countries that “degrowth” is the answer is beyond perverse—cut Mongolia’s GDP by 2/3 and you would throw them into poverty without even bringing carbon emissions down to target.

We don’t need to overthrow capitalism or even give up on GDP growth in general. We need to focus on carbon, carbon, carbon: All economic policy from this point forward should be made with CO2 reduction in mind. If that means reducing GDP, we may have to accept that; but often it won’t. Switching to nuclear power and public transit would dramatically reduce emissions but need have no harmful effect on economic output—in fact, the large investment required could pull a country out of recession.

Don’t worry about the Doughnut. Aim for the point of the Wedge.

I’m not sure environmentalists understand what the word “consumption” means to economists.

Feb 25 JDN 2458175

Several times now I’ve heard environmentalists repeat variants of this line: “Capitalist economies depend on consumption; therefore capitalism is incompatible with environmental sustainability.”

A recent example comes from this article on QZ arguing that “conscious consumerism” isn’t viable for protecting the environment:

In short, consumption is the backbone of the American economy—which means individual conscious consumerism is basically bound to fail. “70% of GDP in the US is based on household consumption. So all the systems, the market, the institutions, everything is calibrated to maximize consumption,” Brown told me in a later interview. “The whole marketing industry and advertising invents new needs we didn’t know we had.”

Consumption. You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

To be clear, let me say that I basically agree that “conscious consumerism” isn’t good enough. There are a few big things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, like moving to California (or better yet, Scandinavia), becoming vegetarian, driving a hybrid car (or not driving at all), and not flying on airplanes. Aside from that, your consumer choices are not going to have a large impact. There is a huge amount of greenwashing that goes on—products that present themselves as eco-friendly which really aren’t. And these things by themselves are not enough. A 2012 study by the European Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production found little or no difference in long-run carbon footprint between people who claim to be “green consumers” and people who don’t.

Moreover, there is a strong positive correlation between a country’s GDP and its carbon footprint. The list of countries with the highest carbon emissions looks a lot like the list of countries with the highest GDP.

But there is still substantial variation in the ratio of GDP to carbon emissions. Scandinavia does extremely well, at over $5,000 per ton (as does France, thanks to nuclear energy), while most European countries make about $3,000 per ton, the US is at about $2,000 per ton, and the very most carbon-intensive economies like China, the UAE, and South Africa only make about $1,000 per ton. China produces more carbon emissions per capita than Denmark despite having only one-third the standard of living (at purchasing power parity). Emissions also vary a great deal by states within the US; California’s per-capita emissions are comparable to France’s, while Wyoming’s are worse than the UAE’s.

This brings me to my main point, which is that economists don’t mean the same thing by the word “consumption” that environmentalists do. The environmentalist meaning might be closer to common usage: When something is consumed, we think of it as being destroyed, despoiled, degraded. (It’s even an archaic euphemism for tuberculosis.) So I can see why you would think that if our economy is 70% “consumption” that must make capitalism terrible for the environment: An economy that is 70% destruction, despoliation, and degradation does sound pretty bad.

But when economists use the word “consumption”, what we actually mean is private household expenditure. Our economy is 70% “consumption” in the sense that 70% of the dollars spent in GDP are spent by private individuals as opposed to corporations or the government. Of the $19.7 trillion of US GDP, $13.6 trillion was personal consumption expenditures. That’s actually 69%, but it’s okay to round up to 70%. The rest is made up of $3.4 trillion in government spending, $3.3 trillion in private investment, and a loss of $0.6 trillion from our trade deficit.

There’s no particular connection between private household expenditure and destruction, despoliation, or degradation. In fact, the most destructive form of GDP is obviously military spending, which is not counted as “consumption” in the National Income and Product Accounts but rather as “government expenditure”. Military spending is almost pure waste from an ecological perspective; it consumes mind-boggling amounts of fossil fuels in addition to causing death and destruction. The US military produces almost as much total carbon emissions as the entire country of Denmark.

In fact, the vast majority of private household expenditure in highly-developed countries is in the form of services—over $9.2 trillion in the US. The top four categories for expenditure on services in the US are housing/utilities, healthcare, finance, and food service. I can at least see how housing and utilities would be related to ecological impact—concrete and steel are very carbon-intensive, as is electricity if you’re not using nuclear or renewables. But healthcare, finance, and food service? When environmentalists point to the fact that 70% of our economy is consumption as evidence of the fundamental unsustainability of capitalism, this amounts to asserting that the reason we can’t prevent global warming is that there are so many nurses, accountants, and waiters.

Of course, most people don’t quite grasp what economists mean when we use the word “consumption”, so it makes for a nice talking point for environmentalists. You can conjure images of degradation and destruction while citing the respected authority of the National Income and Product Accounts. If you were already left-wing otherwise (as most environmentalists are), you can make it seem as though the problem is capitalism itself, the very structure of an economy built upon “consuming” the Earth.

In reality, there is enormous variation between countries in terms of their carbon efficiency, and in fact the most carbon-efficient nations are all those that have the highest degrees of political and economic freedom—which is to say, social democracies. One can debate whether social democracies like Denmark and Sweden are “truly capitalist”, but they definitely have free-market economies with large private sectors. On a global and historical scale, there’s really not that much difference between Denmark and the United States (compare to the USSR, or China, or Burkina Faso, or Medieval Japan, or Classical Rome). And if the US isn’t capitalist, who is?

My advice? Don’t talk about consumption at all. Talk about carbon emissions. Don’t ignore variation in GDP/carbon ratios: If the world copied China, we’d all have a per-capita income of $15,500 and emissions of 7.6 tons of carbon per person per year; but if the world copied Denmark, we’d all have a per-capita income of $51,000 and emissions of 6.8 tons of carbon per person per year. (Granted, even 6.8 is still too high; the targets I’ve seen say we need to be at about 3.0 by 2030. But Denmark has also been trending downward in emissions, so we could copy them on that too.) Reducing our standard of living wouldn’t save us if it meant being like China, and maintaining it wouldn’t hurt us if it meant being like Denmark.

I definitely agree that focusing on consumer choices isn’t good enough. Focus on policy. Carbon taxes, bans on unconventional extraction (e.g. offshore drilling, fracking), heavy investment in solar and nuclear energy, large reforestation projects, research into soil sequestration and ocean seeding. Demand these things from all politicians of all parties at all levels of government always. Don’t take no for an answer—because millions of people will die if we don’t stop climate change.

But I don’t think nurses, accountants, and waiters are the problem—and it doesn’t hurt for people to become vegetarian and buy hybrid cars.

What about a tax on political contributions?

Jan 7, JDN 2458126

In my previous post, I argued that an advertising tax could reduce advertising, raise revenue, and produce almost no real economic distortion. Now I’m going to generalize this idea to an even bolder proposal: What if we tax political contributions?

Donations to political campaigns are very similar to advertising. A contest function framework also makes a lot of sense: Increased spending improves your odds of winning, but it doesn’t actually produce any real goods.

Suppose there’s some benefit B that I get if a given politician wins an election. That benefit could include direct benefits to me, as well as altruistic benefits to other citizens I care about, or even my concern for the world as a whole. But presumably, I do benefit in some fashion from my favored politician winning—otherwise, why are they my favored politician?

In this very simple model, let’s assume that there are only two parties and two donors (obviously in the real world there are more parties and vastly more donors; but it doesn’t fundamentally change the argument). Say I will donate x and the other side will donate y.

Assuming that donations are all that matter, the probability my party will win the election is x/(x+y).

Fortunately that isn’t the case. A lot of things matter, some that should (policy platforms, experience, qualifications, character) and some that shouldn’t (race, gender, age, heightpart of why Trump won may in fact be that he is tall; he’s about 6’1”.). So let’s put all the other factors that affect elections into a package and call that F.

The probability that my candidate wins is then x/(x+y) + F, where F can be positive or negative. If F is positive, it means that my candidate is more likely to win, while if it’s negative, it means my candidate is less likely to win. (If you want to be pedantic, the probability of winning has to be capped at 0 and 1, but this doesn’t fundamentally change the argument, and only matters for candidates that are obvious winners or obvious losers regardless of how much anyone donates.)

The donation costs me money, x. The cost in utility of that money depends on my utility function, so for now I’ll just call it a cost function C(x).
Then my net benefit is:
B*[x/(x+y)+F] – C(x)

I can maximize this by a first-order condition. Notice how the F just drops out. I like F to be large, but it doesn’t affect my choice of x.

B*y/(x+y)^2 = C'(x)

Turning that into an exact value requires knowing my cost function and my opponent’s cost function (which need not be the same, in general; unlike the advertising case, it’s not a matter of splitting fungible profits between us), but it’s actually possible to stop here. We can already tell that there is a well-defined solution: There’s a certain amount of donation x that maximizes my expected utility, given the amount y that the other side has donated. Moreover, with a little bit of calculus you can show that the optimal amount of x is strictly increasing in y, which makes intuitive sense: The more they give, the more you need to give in order to keep up. Since x is increasing in y and y is increasing in x, there is a Nash equilibrium: At some amount x and y we each are giving the optimal amount from our perspective.

We can get a precise answer if we assume that the amount of the donations is small compared to my overall wealth, so I will be approximately risk-neutral; then we can just say C(x) = x, and C'(x) = 1:

B*y/(x+y)^2 = 1
Then we get essentially the same result we did for the advertising:

x = y = B/4

According to this, I should be willing to donate up to one-fourth the benefit I’d get from my candidate winning in donations. This actually sounds quite high; I think once you take into account the fact that lots of other people are donating and political contributions aren’t that effective at winning elections, the optimal donation is actually quite a bit smaller—though perhaps still larger than most people give.

If we impose a tax rate r on political contributions, nothing changes. The cost to me of donating is still the same, and as long as the tax is proportional, the ratio x/(x+y) and the probability x/(x+y) + F will remain exactly the same as before. Therefore, I will continue to donate the same amount, as will my opponent, and each candidate will have the same probability of winning as before. The only difference is that some of the money (r of the money, to be precise) will go to the government instead of the politicians.

The total amount of donations will not change. The probability of each candidate winning will not change. All that will happen is money will be transferred from politicians to the government. If this tax revenue is earmarked for some socially beneficial function, this will obviously be an improvement in welfare.

The revenue gained is not nearly as large an amount of money as is spent on advertising (which tells you something about American society), but it’s still quite a bit: Since we currently spend about $5 billion per year on federal elections, a tax rate of 50% could raise about $2.5 billion.

But in fact this seriously under-estimates the benefits of such a tax. This simple model assumes that political contributions only change which candidate wins; but that’s actually not the main concern. (If F is large enough, it can offset any possible donations.)
The real concern is how political contributions affect the choices politicians make once they get into office. While outright quid-pro-quo bribery is illegal, it’s well-known that many corporations and wealthy individuals will give campaign donations with the reasonable expectation of influencing what sort of policies will be made.

You don’t think Goldman Sachs gives millions of dollars each election out of the goodness of their hearts, do you? And they give to both major parties, which really only makes sense if their goal is not to make a particular candidate win, but to make sure that whoever wins feels indebted to Goldman Sachs. (I guess it could also be to prevent third parties from winning—but they hardly ever win anyway, so that wouldn’t be a smart investment from the bank’s perspective.)

Lynda Powell at the University of Rochester has documented the many subtle but significant ways that these donations have influenced policy. Campaign donations aren’t as important as party platforms, but a lot of subtle changes across a wide variety of policies add up to large differences in outcomes.

A political contribution tax would reduce these influences. If politicians’ sole goal were to win, the tax would have no effect. But it seems quite likely that politicians enjoy various personal benefits from lobbying and campaign contributions: Fine dinners, luxurious vacations, and so on. And insofar as that is influencing politicians’ behavior, it is both obviously corrupt and clearly reduced by a political contribution tax. How large an effect this would be is difficult to say; but the direction of the effect is clearly the one we want.

Taxing donations would also allow us to protect the right to give to campaigns (which does seem to be a limited kind of civil liberty, even though the precise interpretation “money is speech” is Orwellian), while reducing corruption and allowing us to keep close track on donations that are made. Taxing a money stream, even a small amount, is often one of the best ways to incentivize close monitoring of that money stream.

With a subtle change, the tax could even be made to bias in favor of populism: All you need to do is exempt small donations from the tax. If say the first $1000 per person per year is exempt from taxation, then the imposition of the tax will reduce the effectiveness of million-dollar contributions from Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers without having any effect on $50 donations from people like you and me. That would technically be “distorting” elections—but it seems like it might be a distortion worth making.

Of course, this is probably even less likely to happen than the advertising tax.