Europe is paying the price for relying on Russian natural gas

Sep 18 JDN 2459841

For far too long, Europe has relied upon importing cheap natural gas from Russia to supply a large proportion of its energy needs. Now that the war in Ukraine has led to mutual sanctions, they are paying the price—literally, as the price of natural gas has absolutely ballooned. Dutch natural gas futures have soared from about €15 per megawatt-hour in 2020 to over €200 today.

Natural gas prices are rising worldwide, but not nearly as much: Henry Hub natural gas prices (a standard metric for natural gas prices in the US) have risen from under $2 per million BTU in 2020 to nearly $9 today. This substantial divide in prices can only be sustained because transporting natural gas is expensive and requires substantial infrastructure. (1 megawatt-hour is about 3.4 million BTU, and the euro is trading at parity with the dollar (!), so effectively US prices rose from €7 per MWh to €31 per MWh—as opposed to €200.)

As a result, a lot of people in Europe are suddenly finding their utility bills unaffordable. (I’m fortunate that my flat is relatively well-insulated and my income is reasonably high, so I’m not among them; the higher prices will be annoying, but not beyond my means.) What should we do about this?

There are some economists who would say we should do nothing at all: Laissez-faire. Markets are efficient, right? So just let people freeze! Fortunately, Europe is not governed by such people nearly as much as the US is.

But while most economists would agree that we should do something, it’s much harder to get them to agree on exactly what.

Rising prices of natural gas are sort of a good thing, from an environmental perspective; they’ll provide an incentive to reduce carbon emissions. So it’s tempting to say that we should just let the prices rise and then compensate by raising taxes and paying transfers to poor families. But that probably isn’t politically viable; all three parts—letting prices rise, raising taxes, and increasing transfers—are all going to make enemies, and we really must have all three for such a plan to work.

The current approach seems to be based on price controls: Don’t let the prices rise so much. The UK has such a policy in place: Natural gas prices for consumers are capped by regulations. The cap has been increased in response to the crisis (itself an unpopular, but clearly necessary, move), but even so 31 gas companies have already gone under across the UK since the start of 2021. It really seems to be the case that for many gas companies, especially the smaller ones with less economy of scale, it’s simply not possible to continue providing natural gas to homes with input prices so high and output prices capped so low.

Or, we could let prices rise that high for producers, but subsidize consumers so that they don’t feel it; several European countries are already doing this. That at least won’t result in gas companies failing, but it will cost a lot of government funds. Greece in particular is spending over 3% of their GDP on it! (For comparison, the US military budget is about 4% of GDP.) I think this might actually be the best option, though all that spending will mean more government debt or higher taxes.

European governments have also been building up strategic reserves of natural gas, which may help us get through the winter—but it also makes the current price increases even worse.

We could also ration energy use, as we’ve often done during wartime. (Is this wartime? Kind of? Not really? It certainly is starting to feel like Cold War II.) Indeed, the President of the European Commission basically said that this should happen. That, at least, would reap some of the environmental benefits of reduced natural gas consumption. Rationing also feels fair to most people in a way that simply letting market prices rise does not; there is a sense of shared sacrifice. What worries me, however, is that the rations won’t be well-designed enough to account for energy usage that isn’t in a family’s immediate control. If you’re renting a flat that is poorly insulated, you can’t immediately fix that. You can try to pressure the landlord into buying better insulation, but in the meantime you’re the one paying the energy bills—or getting cold when the natural gas ration isn’t enough.

Actually I strongly suspect that most household usage of natural gas is of this kind; people don’t generally heat their homes more than necessary just because gas is cheap. Maybe they can set the thermostat a degree or two lower when gas is expensive, or maybe they use the gas oven less often and the microwave more; but the vast majority of their gas consumption is a function of the climate they live in and the insulation of their home, not their day-to-day choices. So if we’re trying to incentivize more efficient energy usage, that’s a question of long-term investment in construction and retrofitting, not something that sudden price spikes will really help with.

In the long run, what we really need to do is wean ourselves off of natural gas. Currently natural gas provides 33% of energy and nearly 40% of heating in Europe. (US figures are comparable.) Switching to electric heat pumps and powering them with solar and wind power isn’t something we can do overnight—but it is something we surely must do.

I think ultimately what is going to happen is all of the above: Different countries will adopt different policy mixes, all of them will involve difficult compromises, none of them will be particularly well-designed, and we’ll all sort of muddle through as best we can.

The War on Terror has been a total failure.

Sep 11 JDN 2459834

Since today happens to be September 11, I thought I’d spend this week’s post reflecting on the last 21 years (!) of the War on Terror.

At this point, I can safely say that the War on Terror has been a complete, total, utter failure. It has cost over $8 trillion and nearly a million lives, and not only didn’t reduce terrorism, it actually appears to have substantially increased it.

Take a look at this graph from Our World in Data:

Up until the the 1980s, terrorism worldwide was a slow smoldering, killing rarely more than a few hundred people each year. Obviously it’s terrible if you or one of your loved ones happen to be among those few hundred, but in terms of its overall chance of killing you or your children, terrorism used to be less dangerous than kiddie pools.

Then terrorism began to rise, until it was killing several thousand people a year. I was surprised to learn that most of these were not in the Middle East, but in fact spread all over the world, with the highest concentrations actually being in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Notably, almost none of these deaths were in First World countries, and as a result most First World governments largely ignored them. Terrorism was something that happened “over there”, to other people.

Then of course came 2001, and 9/11/2001, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in a single day. And suddenly the First World took notice, and decided to respond with overwhelming force.

We have been at war basically ever since. All this war has accomplished… approximately nothing.

The deadliest year of terrorism in the 21st century was not 2001; it was 2014, after the US had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq, and in fact withdrawn from Iraq (but not yet Afghanistan). This was largely the result of the rise of Daesh (which is what you should call them by the way), which seems to be the most fanatical and violent Islamist terrorist organization the world has seen in decades if not centuries.

Even First World terrorism is no better today than it was in the 1990s—though also no worse. It’s back to a slow smolder, and once again First World societies can feel that terrorism is something that happens to someone else. But terrorism in the Middle East is the worst it has been in decades.

Would Daesh not have appeared if the US had never invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? It’s difficult to say. Maybe their rise was inevitable. Or maybe having a strong, relatively secular government in the region under Saddam Hussein would have prevented them from becoming so powerful. We can at least say this: Since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban retook control, the Taliban and Daesh have been fighting each other quite heavily. Presumably that would have been happening all along if the US had not intervened to suppress the Taliban.

Don’t get me wrong: The Taliban were, and are, a terrible regime, and Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator. But Daesh is clearly worse than either, and sometimes in geopolitics you have to accept the lesser evil.

If we’d actually had a way to take over Afghanistan and Iraq and rebuild them as secular liberal democracies as the US government intended, that would have been a good thing, and might even have been worth all that blood and treasure. But that project utterly failed, and we should have expected it to fail, as never in history has anyone successfully imposed liberal democracy by outside force like that.

When democracy spreads, it usually does so slowly, through the cultural influence of trade and media. Sometimes it springs up in violent revolution—as we hoped it would in the Arab Spring but were sadly disappointed. But there are really no clear examples of a democratic country invading an undemocratic country and rapidly turning it democratic.

British colonialism was spread by the sword (and especially the machine gun), and did sometimes ultimately lead to democratic outcomes, as in the US, Australia, and Canada, and more recently in India, South Africa, and Botswana. But that process was never fast, never smooth, and rarely without bloodshed—and only succeeded when the local population was willing to fight for it. Britain didn’t simply take over countries and convert them to liberal democracies in a generation. No one has ever done that, and trying to was always wishful thinking.

I don’t know, maybe in the very long run, we’ll look back on all this as the first, bloody step toward something better for the Middle East. Maybe the generation of women who got a taste of freedom and education in Afghanistan under US occupation will decide to rise up and refuse to relinquish those rights under the new Taliban. Daesh will surely die sooner or later; fanaticism can rarely sustain organizations in the long term.

But it’s been 20 years now, and things look no better than they did at the start. Maybe it’s time to cut our losses?

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.)

Good news on the climate, for a change

Aug 7 JDN 2459799

In what is surely the biggest political surprise of the decade—if not the century—Joe Manchin suddenly changed his mind and signed onto a budget reconciliation bill that will radically shift US climate policy. He was the last vote needed for the bill to make it through the Senate via reconciliation (as he often is, because he’s pretty much a DINO).

Because the Senate is ridiculous, there are still several layers of procedure the bill must go through before it can actually pass. But since the parliamentarian was appointed by a Democrat and the House had already passed an even stronger climate bill, it looks like at least most of it will make it through. The reconciliation process means we only need a bare majority, so even if all the Republicans vote against it—which they very likely will—it can still get through, with Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote. (Because our Senate is 50-50, Harris is on track to cast the most tie-breaking votes of any US Vice President by the end of her term.) Reconciliation also can’t be filibustered.

While it includes a lot of expenditures, particularly tax credits for clean energy and electric cars, the bill includes tax increases and closed loopholes so that it will actually decrease the deficit and likely reduce inflation—which Manchin said was a major reason he was willing to support it. But more importantly, it promises to reduce US carbon emissions by a staggering 40% by 2030.

The US currently produces about 15 tons of CO2 equivalent per person per year, so reducing that by 40% would drop it to only 9 tons per person per year. This would move us from nearly as bad as Saudi Arabia to nearly as good as Norway. It still won’t mean we are doing as well as France or the UK—but at least we’ll no longer be dragging down the rest of the First World.

And this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky promise: Independent forecasts suggest that these policies may really be able to reduce our emissions that much that fast. It’s honestly a little hard for me to believe; but that’s what the experts are saying.

Manchin wants to call it the Inflation Reduction Act, but it probably won’t actually reduce inflation very much. But some economists—even quite center-right ones—think it may actually reduce inflation quite a bit, and we basically all agree that it at least won’t increase inflation very much. Since the effects on inflation are likely to be small, we really don’t have to worry about them: whatever it does to inflation, the important thing is that this bill reduces carbon emissions.

Honestly, it’ll be kind of disgusting if this actually does work—because it’s so easy. This bill will have almost no downside. Its macroeconomic effects will be minor, maybe even positive. There was no reason it needed to be this hard-fought. Even if it didn’t have tax increases to offset it—which it absolutely does—the total cost of this bill over the next ten years would be less than six months of military spending, so cutting military spending by 5% would cover it. We have cured our unbearable headaches by finally realizing we could stop hitting ourselves in the head. (And the Republicans want us to keep hitting ourselves and will do whatever they can to make that happen.)

So, yes, it’s very sad that it took us this long. And even 60% of our current emissions is still too much emissions for a stable climate. But let’s take a moment to celebrate, because this is a genuine victory—and we haven’t had a lot of those in awhile.

Krugman and rockets and feathers

Jul 17 JDN 2459797

Well, this feels like a milestone: Paul Krugman just wrote a column about a topic I’ve published research on. He didn’t actually cite our paper—in fact the literature review he links to is from 2014—but the topic is very much what we were studying: Asymmetric price transmission, ‘rockets and feathers’. He’s even talking about it from the perspective of industrial organization and market power, which is right in line with our results (and a bit different from the mainstream consensus among economic policy pundits).

The phenomenon is a well-documented one: When the price of an input (say, crude oil) rises, the price of outputs made from that input (say, gasoline) rise immediately, and basically one to one, sometimes even more than one to one. But when the price of an input falls, the price of outputs only falls slowly and gradually, taking a long time to converge to the same level as the input prices. Prices go up like a rocket, but down like a feather.

Many different explanations have been proposed to explain this phenomenon, and they aren’t all mutually exclusive. They include various aspects of market structure, substitution of inputs, and use of inventories to smooth the effects of prices.

One that I find particularly unpersuasive is the notion of menu costs: That it requires costly effort to actually change your prices, and this somehow results in the asymmetry. Most gas stations have digital price boards; it requires almost zero effort for them to change prices whenever they want. Moreover, there’s no clear reason this would result in asymmetry between raising and lowering prices. Some models extend the notion of “menu cost” to include expected customer responses, which is a much better explanation; but I think that’s far beyond the original meaning of the concept. If you fear to change your price because of how customers may respond, finding a cheaper way to print price labels won’t do a thing to change that.

But our paper—and Krugman’s article—is about one factor in particular: market power. We don’t see prices behave this way in highly competitive markets. We see it the most in oligopolies: Markets where there are only a small number of sellers, who thus have some control over how they set their prices.

Krugman explains it as follows:

When oil prices shoot up, owners of gas stations feel empowered not just to pass on the cost but also to raise their markups, because consumers can’t easily tell whether they’re being gouged when prices are going up everywhere. And gas stations may hang on to these extra markups for a while even when oil prices fall.

That’s actually a somewhat different mechanism from the one we found in our experiment, which is that asymmetric price transmission can be driven by tacit collusion. Explicit collusion is illegal: You can’t just call up the other gas stations and say, “Let’s all set the price at $5 per gallon.” But you can tacitly collude by responding to how they set their prices, and not trying to undercut them even when you could get a short-run benefit from doing so. It’s actually very similar to an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma: Cooperation is better for everyone, but worse for you as an individual; to get everyone to cooperate, it’s vital to severely punish those who don’t.

In our experiment, the participants in our experiment were acting as businesses setting their prices. The customers were fully automated, so there was no opportunity to “fool” them in this way. We also excluded any kind of menu costs or product inventories. But we still saw prices go up like rockets and down like feathers. Moreover, prices were always substantially higher than costs, especially during that phase when they are falling down like feathers.

Our explanation goes something like this: Businesses are trying to use their market power to maintain higher prices and thereby make higher profits, but they have to worry about other businesses undercutting their prices and taking all the business. Moreover, they also have to worry about others thinking that they are trying to undercut prices—they want to be perceived as cooperating, not defecting, in order to preserve the collusion and avoid being punished.

Consider how this affects their decisions when input prices change. If the price of oil goes up, then there’s no reason not to raise the price of gasoline immediately, because that isn’t violating the collusion. If anything, it’s being nice to your fellow colluders; they want prices as high as possible. You’ll want to raise the prices as high and fast as you can get away with, and you know they’ll do the same. But if the price of oil goes down, now gas stations are faced with a dilemma: You could lower prices to get more customers and make more profits, but the other gas stations might consider that a violation of your tacit collusion and could punish you by cutting their prices even more. Your best option is to lower prices very slowly, so that you can take advantage of the change in the input market, but also maintain the collusion with other gas stations. By slowly cutting prices, you can ensure that you are doing it together, and not trying to undercut other businesses.

Krugman’s explanation and ours are not mutually exclusive; in fact I think both are probably happening. They have one important feature in common, which fits the empirical data: Markets with less competition show greater degrees of asymmetric price transmission. The more concentrated the oligopoly, the more we see rockets and feathers.

They also share an important policy implication: Market power can make inflation worse. Contrary to what a lot of economic policy pundits have been saying, it isn’t ridiculous to think that breaking up monopolies or putting pressure on oligopolies to lower their prices could help reduce inflation. It probably won’t be as reliably effective as the Fed’s buying and selling of bonds to adjust interest rates—but we’re also doing that, and the two are not mutually exclusive. Besides, breaking up monopolies is a generally good thing to do anyway.

It’s not that unusual that I find myself agreeing with Krugman. I think what makes this one feel weird is that I have more expertise on the subject than he does.

How to pack the court

Jul 10 JDN 2459790

By now you have no doubt heard the news that Roe v. Wade was overturned. The New York Times has an annotated version of the full opinion.

My own views on abortion are like those of about 2/3 of Americans: More nuanced than can be neatly expressed by ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’, much more comfortable with first-trimester abortion (which is what 90% of abortions are, by the way) than later, and opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade in its entirety. I also find great appeal in Clinton’s motto on the issue: “safe, legal, and rare”.Several years ago I moderated an online discussion group that reached what we called the Twelve Week Compromise: Abortion would be legal for any reason up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, after which it would only be legal for extenuating circumstances including rape, incest, fetal nonviability, and severe health risk to the mother. This would render the vast majority of abortions legal without simply saying that it should be permitted without question. Roe v. Wade was actually slightly more permissive than this, but it was itself a very sound compromise.

But even if you didn’t like Roe v. Wade, you should be outraged at the manner in which it was overturned. If the Supreme Court can simply change its mind on rights that have been established for nearly 50 years, then none of our rights are safe. And in chilling comments, Clarence Thomas has declared that this is his precise intention: “In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” That is to say, Thomas wants to remove our rights to use contraception and have same-sex relationships. (If Lawrence were overturned, sodomy could be criminalized in several states!)

The good news here is that even the other conservative justices seem much less inclined to overturn these other precedents. Kavanaugh’s concurrent opinion explicitly states he has no intention of overturning “Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U. S. 479 (1965); Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U. S. 438 (1972); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1 (1967); and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. 644 (2015)”. It seems quite notable that Thomas did not mention Loving v. Virginia, seeing as it was made around the same time as Roe v. Wade, based on very similar principles—and it affects him personally. And even if these precedents are unlikely to be overturned immediately, this ruling shows that the security of all of our rights can depend on the particular inclinations of individual justices.

The Supreme Court is honestly a terrible institution. Courts should not be more powerful than legislatures, lifetime appointments reek of monarchism, and the claim of being ‘apolitical’ that was dubious from the start is now obviously ludicrous. But precisely because it is so powerful, reforming it will be extremely difficult.

The first step is to pack the court. The question is no longer whether we should pack the court, but how, and why we didn’t do it sooner.

What does it mean to pack the court? Increase the number of justices, appointing new ones who are better than the current ones. (Since almost any randomly-selected American would be better than Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, or Brent Kavanaugh, this wouldn’t be hard.) This is 100% Constitutional, as the Constitution does not in any way restrict the number of justices. It can simply be done by an act of Congress.

But of course we can’t stop there. President Biden could appoint four more justices, and then whoever comes after him could appoint another three, and before we know it the Supreme Court has twenty-seven justices and each new President is expected to add a few more.

No, we need to fix the number of justices so that it can’t be increased any further. Ideally this would be done by Constitutional Amendment, though the odds of getting such a thing passed seem rather slim. But there is in fact a sensible way to add new justices now and then justify not adding any more later, and that is to tie justices to federal circuits.

There are currently 13 US federal circuit courts. If we added 4 more Supreme Court justices, there would be 13 Supreme Court justices. Each could even be assigned to be the nominal head of that federal circuit, and responsible for being the first to read appeals coming from that circuit.

Which justice goes where? Well, what if we let the circuits themselves choose? The selection could be made by a popular vote among the people who live there. Make the federal circuit a federal popular vote. The justice responsible for the federal circuit can also be the Chief Justice.

That would also require a Constitutional Amendment, but it would, at a stroke, fundamentally reform what the Supreme Court is and how its justices are chosen. For now, we could simply add three new justices, making the current number 13. Then they could decide amongst themselves who will get what circuit until we implement the full system to let circuits choose their justices.

I’m well aware that electing judges is problematic—but at this point I don’t think we have a choice. (I would also prefer to re-arrange the circuits: it’s weird that DC gets its own circuit instead of being part of circuit 4, and circuit 9 has way more people than circuit 1.) We can’t simply trust each new President to appoint a new justice whenever one happens to retire or die and then leave that justice in place for decades to come. Not in a world where someone like Donald Trump can be elected President.

A lot of centrist people are uncomfortable with such a move, seeing it as ‘playing dirty’. But it’s not. It’s playing hardball—taking seriously the threat that the current Republican Party poses to the future of American government and society, and taking substantive steps to fight that threat. (After its authoritarian shift that started in the mid 2000s but really took off under Trump, the Republican Party now has more in common with far-right extremist parties like Fidesz in Hungary than with mainstream center-right parties like the Tories.) But there is absolutely nothing un-Constitutional about this plan. It’s doing everything possible within the law.

We should have done this before they started overturning landmark precedents. But it’s not too late to do it before they overturn any more.

Why copyrights should be shorter

Jul 3 JDN 2459783

The copyright protection for Mickey Mouse is set to expire in 2024, though a recently-proposed bill that specifically targets large corporations would cause it to end immediately. Steamboat Willie was released in 1928.

This means that Mickey Mouse has been under copyright protection for 94 years, and is scheduled to last 96. Let me remind you that Walt Disney has been dead since 1966. This is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Mickey Mouse should have been released into the public domain decades ago.

Copyright in general has quite a shaky justification, and there are those who argue that it should be eliminated entirely. There’s something profoundly weird—and fundamentally monopolistic—about banning people from copying things.

But clearly we do need some way of ensuring that creators of artistic works can be fairly compensated for their efforts. Copyright is not the only way to do that: A few alternatives that I think are worth considering are expanded crowdfunding (Patreon and Kickstart already support quite a few artists, though most not very much), a large basic income (artists would still create even if they weren’t paid; they really just need money to live on), government grants directly to artists (we have the National Endowment for the Arts, but it doesn’t support very many artists), and some kind of central clearinghouse that surveys consumers about the art they enjoy and then compensates artists according to how much their work is appreciated. But all of these would require substantial changes, and suffer from their own flaws, so for the time being, let’s say we stick with copyright.

Even so, it’s utterly ludicrous that Disney has managed to hold onto the copyright on Mickey Mouse for this long. It makes absolutely no sense from the perspective of supporting artists—indeed, in this case the artist has been dead for over 50 years.

In fact, it wouldn’t even make sense if Walt Disney were still alive. (Not many people live 96 years past their first highly-successful creative work, but it’s at least possible, if you say published as a child and then lived to be a centenarian.) If the goal is to incentivize new creative art, the first few decades—indeed, the first few years—are clearly the most important for doing so.

To show why this is, I need to take a brief detour into finance, and the concept of a net present value.

As the saying goes: Time is money. $1 today is worth more than $1 a year from now. (And if you doubt this, let me remind you of the old joke: “I’ll give you $1 million dollars if you give me $100! Such a deal! Give me the $100 today, and I’ll give you $1 per year for the next million years.”)

The idea of a net present value is to precisely quantify the monetary value of time (or the time value of money), so that we can compare cashflows over time in a directly comparable way.

To compute a net present value, you need a discount rate. At a discount rate of r, an amount of money X that you get 1 year from now is worth X/(1+r). The discount rate should be positive, because money later is worth less than money now; this means that we want X/(1+r) < X, and therefore r > 0.

This is surprisingly hard to get precisely, but relatively easy to ballpark. A good guess is that it’s somewhere close to the prevailing interest rate, or maybe the average return on the stock market. It should definitely be at least the inflation rate. Right now inflation is running a little high (around 8%), so we’d want to use a relatively high discount rate currently, maybe 10% or 12%. But I think in a more typical scenario, something more like 5-6% would be a reasonable guess.

Once you have a discount rate, it’s pretty simple to figure out the net present value: Just add up all the future cashflows, each discounted by that discount rate for the time you have to wait for it.

So for instance if you get $100 per year for the next 5 years, this would be your net present value:

100/(1+r) + 100/(1+r)^2 + 100/(1+r)^3 + 100/(1+r)^4 + 100/(1+r)^5

If you get $50 this year, $60 next year, $70 the year after that, this would be your next present value:

50 + 60/(1+r) + 70/(1+r)^2

If the cashflow is the same X over time for some fixed amount of time T this can be collapsed into a single formula using a geometric series:

X (1 – (1+r)^(-T)) – 1)/r

This is really just a more compact way of adding up, X + X/(1+r) + X/(1+r)^2 + …; here, let’s do that example of $100 per year for 5 years, with r = 10%.

100/1.1 + 100/1.1^2 + 100/1.1^3 + 100/1.1^4 + 100/1.1^5 = $379

100 (1 – 1.1^(-5))/0.1 = $379

See, we get the same answer either way. Notice that this is less than $100 * 5 = $500, which is what we’d get if we had assumed that $1 a year from now is worth the same as $1 today. But it’s not too much less, because it’s only 5 years.

This formula allows us to consider what happens when the time interval becomes extremely long—even infinite. It gives us the power to ask the question, “What is the value of this perpetual cashflow?”

This feels a bit weird for individuals, since of course we die. We can have heirs, but rare indeed is the thousand-year dynasty. (The Imperial House of Japan does appear to have an unbroken hereditary line for the last 2000 years, but they’re basically alone in that.) But governments and corporations don’t have a lifespan, so it makes more sense for them. The US government was here 200 years ago, and may still be here 200 years from now. Oxford was here 900 years ago, and I see no particular reason to think it won’t still be here 900 years from now.

Since r > 0, (1+r)^(-T) gets smaller as T increases. As T approaches infinity, (1+r)^(-T) approaches zero. So for a perpetual cashflow, we can just make this term zero.

Thus, we can actually assess the value of $1 per year for the next million years! It is this:

1 (1-(1+r)^(10^6))/r

which is basically the same as this:

1/r

So if your discount rate is 10%, then $1 per year for 1 million years is worth about as much to you as $1/0.1 = $10 today. If your discount rate is 5%, it would be worth about $1/0.05 = $20 today. And suddenly it makes sense that you’re not willing to pay $100 for this deal.

What if the cashflow is changing? Then this formula won’t work. But if it’s simply a constant rate of growth, we can adjust for that. If the growth rate of the cashflow is g, so that you get X, then X (1+g), then x (1+g)^2, and so on, the formula becomes just a bit more complicated:

X (1-(1+r-g)^(-T))/(r-g)

So for instance if your cashflow grows at 6% per year and your discount rate is 10%, then it’s basically the same as if it didn’t grow at all but your discount rate is 4%. [This is actually an approximation, but it’s a pretty good one.] Let’s call this the effective discount rate.

For a perpetual cashflow, as long as r > g, this becomes:

X/(r-g)

With this in mind, let’s return to the question of copyright. How long should copyright protection last?

We want it to last long enough for artists to be fairly compensated for their work; but what does “fairly compensated” mean? Well, with the concept of a perpetual net present value in mind, we could quantify this as the majority of all revenue that would be expected to be earned by a perpetual copyright.

I think this is actually quite generous: We’re saying that you should get to keep the copyright long enough to get most of what you’d probably get if we allowed you to own it forever. In some cases this might actually result in a copyright that’s too long; but I don’t see how it could result in it being too short.

Mickey Mouse today earns about $3 million per year. That’s honestly amazing, to continue to rake in that much money after such a long period. But, adjusted for inflation, that’s actually quite a bit less than what he took in just a few years after his first films were released, nominally $1 million per year which comes to more like $19 million per year in today’s money.

This means that our discount rate is larger than our growth rate (r > g) even if r is just inflation; but in fact we should use a discount rate higher than inflation. Let’s use a plausible but slightly conservative discount rate of 5%.

To grow from nominally $1 million to nominally $3 million per year in 94 years means a growth rate of about 1% per year.

So, our effective discount rate is 4%.

Then, a perpetual copyright for Mickey Mouse should be worth approximately:

X/(r-g) = 10^6/(0.04) = $25 million

Yes, that’s right; an unending stream of over $1 million per year ends up being worth about the same as a single payment of $25 million way back in 1928.

But isn’t Mickey Mouse a “fictional billionare”, meaning his total income over his existence has been more than $1 billion? Sure. And indeed, at a discount rate of 5%, $1 billion today is worth about $10 million in 1928. So Mickey is indeed well above that. Even if I use Forbes’ higher estimate that Mickey Mouse has taken in $5.8 billion, that would still only be a net present value of $59 million in 1928.

Remember, time is money. When it takes this long to get a cashflow, it ends up worth substantially less.

So, if we were aiming to let Mickey earn half of his perpetual earnings in net present value, when should we have ended his copyright? By my estimate, when the net present value of earnings exceeded $12.5 million. If we use Forbes’s more generous estimate, when it exceeded $30 million.

So now let’s go back to the formula for a finite time horizon, and try to solve it for T, the time horizon. We want the net present value of the finite horizon to be half that of the infinite horizon:

X (1-(1+r-g)^(-T))/(r-g) = (X/2)/(r-g)

(1+r-g)^(-T) = 1/2

To solve this for T, I’ll need to use a logarithm, the inverse of an exponent.

T = ln(2)/ln(1+r – g)

This is a doubling time, very analogous to a half-life in physics. Since logarithms are very difficult to do by hand, if you don’t have a scientific calculator handy, you can also approximate it by dividing the percentage into 69:

T = 69/(r-g)%

This is because ln(2) = 0.69…, and when r-g is a small percentage, ln(1+r-g) is about the same as r-g.

For an effective discount rate of 4%, this becomes:

T = ln(2)/ln(1.04) = 69/4 = 17

That is, only seventeen years. Even for a hugely successful long-running property like Mickey Mouse (in fact, is there really anything on a par with Mickey Mouse?), the majority of the net present value was earned in less than 20 years.

Indeed, it seems especially sensible in this case, because back then, Walt Disney was still alive! He could actually enjoy the fruits of his labors for that period. Now it’s all going to some faceless shareholders of a massive megacorporation, only a few of which are even Walt Disney’s heirs. Only about 3% of Disney shares are owned by anyone actually in the Disney family.

This gives us an answer to the question, “How long should copyrights last?”: About 20 years.

If we’d used a higher discount rate, it would be even shorter: at 10%, you get only 10 years.

And a lower discount rate simply isn’t plausible; inflation and stock market growth are both too fast for net present value to be discounted much less than 4% or 5%. Maybe you could go as low as 3%, which would be 23 years.

Does this accomplish the goal of copyrights—which, remember, was to fairly compensate artists and incentivize the creation of artistic works? I’d say so. They get half of what they would have gotten if we never released their work into the public domain, and I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who could honestly say that they’d create something if they could hold onto the rights for 96 years, but not if they could for only 20 years. (Maybe they exist, but if so, they are rare.) Most artists really just want to be credited—not paid, credited—for their work and to make a decent living. 20 years is enough for that.

This means that our current copyright system keeps works out of public domain nearly five times as long as there is any real economic justification for.

Why do poor people dislike inflation?

Jun 5 JDN 2459736

The United States and United Kingdom are both very unaccustomed to inflation. Neither has seen double-digit inflation since the 1980s.

Here’s US inflation since 1990:

And here is the same graph for the UK:

While a return to double-digits remains possible, at this point it likely won’t happen, and if it does, it will occur only briefly.

This is no doubt a major reason why the dollar and the pound are widely used as reserve currencies (especially the dollar), and is likely due to the fact that they are managed by the world’s most competent central banks. Brexit would almost have made sense if the UK had been pressured to join the Euro; but they weren’t, because everyone knew the pound was better managed.

The Euro also doesn’t have much inflation, but if anything they err on the side of too low, mainly because Germany appears to believe that inflation is literally Hitler. In fact, the rise of the Nazis didn’t have much to do with the Weimar hyperinflation. The Great Depression was by far a greater factor—unemployment is much, much worse than inflation. (By the way, it’s weird that you can put that graph back to the 1980s. It, uh, wasn’t the Euro then. Euros didn’t start circulating until 1999. Is that an aggregate of the franc and the deutsche mark and whatever else? The Euro itself has never had double-digit inflation—ever.)

But it’s always a little surreal for me to see how panicked people in the US and UK get when our inflation rises a couple of percentage points. There seems to be an entire subgenre of economics news that basically consists of rich people saying the sky is falling because inflation has risen—or will, or may rise—by two points. (Hey, anybody got any ideas how we can get them to panic like this over rises in sea level or aggregate temperature?)

Compare this to some other countries thathave real inflation: In Brazil, 10% inflation is a pretty typical year. In Argentina, 10% is a really good year—they’re currently pushing 60%. Kenya’s inflation is pretty well under control now, but it went over 30% during the crisis in 2008. Botswana was doing a nice job of bringing down their inflation until the COVID pandemic threw them out of whack, and now they’re hitting double-digits too. And of course there’s always Zimbabwe, which seemed to look at Weimar Germany and think, “We can beat that.” (80,000,000,000% in one month!? Any time you find yourself talking about billion percent, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.)

Hyperinflation is a real problem—it isn’t what put Hitler into power, but it has led to real crises in Germany, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere. Once you start getting over 100% per year, and especially when it starts rapidly accelerating, that’s a genuine crisis. Moreover, even though they clearly don’t constitute hyperinflation, I can see why people might legitimately worry about price increases of 20% or 30% per year. (Let alone 60% like Argentina is dealing with right now.) But why is going from 2% to 6% any cause for alarm? Yet alarmed we seem to be.

I can even understand why rich people would be upset about inflation (though the magnitudeof their concern does still seem disproportionate). Inflation erodes the value of financial assets, because most bonds, options, etc. are denominated in nominal, not inflation-adjusted terms. (Though there are such things as inflation-indexed bonds.) So high inflation can in fact make rich people slightly less rich.

But why in the world are so many poor people upset about inflation?

Inflation doesn’t just erode the value of financial assets; it also erodes the value of financial debts. And most poor people have more debts than they have assets—indeed, it’s not uncommon for poor people to have substantial debt and no financial assets to speak of (what little wealth they have being non-financial, e.g. a car or a home). Thus, their net wealth position improves as prices rise.

The interest rate response can compensate for this to some extent, but most people’s debts are fixed-rate. Moreover, if it’s the higher interest rates you’re worried about, you should want the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England not to fight inflation too hard, because the way they fight it is chiefly by raising interest rates.

In surveys, almost everyone thinks that inflation is very bad: 92% think that controlling inflation should be a high priority, and 90% think that if inflation gets too high, something very bad will happen. This is greater agreement among Americans than is found for statements like “I like apple pie” or “kittens are nice”, and comparable to “fair elections are important”!

I admit, I question the survey design here: I would answer ‘yes’ to both questions if we’re talking about a theoretical 10,000% hyperinflation, but ‘no’ if we’re talking about a realistic 10% inflation. So I would like to see, but could not find, a survey asking people what level of inflation is sufficient cause for concern. But since most of these people seemed concerned about actual, realistic inflation (85% reported anger at seeing actual, higher prices), it still suggests a lot of strong feelings that even mild inflation is bad.

So it does seem to be the case that a lot of poor and middle-class people really strongly dislike inflation even in the actual, mild levels in which it occurs in the US and UK.

The main fear seems to be that inflation will erode people’s purchasing power—that as the price of gasoline and groceries rise, people won’t be able to eat as well or drive as much. And that, indeed, would be a real loss of utility worth worrying about.

But in fact this makes very little sense: Most forms of income—particularly labor income, which is the only real income for some 80%-90% of the population—actually increases with inflation, more or less one-to-one. Yes, there’s some delay—you won’t get your annual cost-of-living raise immediately, but several months down the road. But this could have at most a small effect on your real consumption.

To see this, suppose that inflation has risen from 2% to 6%. (Really, you need not suppose; it has.) Now consider your cost-of-living raise, which nearly everyone gets. It will presumably rise the same way: So if it was 3% before, it will now be 7%. Now consider how much your purchasing power is affected over the course of the year.

For concreteness, let’s say your initial income was $3,000 per month at the start of the year (a fairly typical amount for a middle-class American, indeed almost exactly the median personal income). Let’s compare the case of no inflation with a 1% raise, 2% inflation with a 3% raise, and 5% inflation with a 6% raise.

If there was no inflation, your real income would remain simply $3,000 per month, until the end of the year when it would become $3,030 per month. That’s the baseline to compare against.

If inflation is 2%, your real income would gradually fall, by about 0.16% per month, before being bumped up 3% at the end of the year. So in January you’d have $3,000, in February $2,995, in March $2,990. Come December, your real income has fallen to $2,941. But then next January it will immediately be bumped up 3% to $3,029, almost the same as it would have been with no inflation at all. The total lost income over the entire year is about $380, or about 1% of your total income.

If inflation instead rises to 6%, your real income will fall by 0.49% per month, reaching a minimum of $2,830 in December before being bumped back up to $3,028 next January. Your total loss for the whole year will be about $1110, or about 3% of your total income.

Indeed, it’s a pretty good heuristic to say that for an inflation rate of x% with annual cost-of-living raises, your loss of real income relative to having no inflation at all is about (x/2)%. (This breaks down for really high levels of inflation, at which point it becomes a wild over-estimate, since even 200% inflation doesn’t make your real income go to zero.)

This isn’t nothing, of course. You’d feel it. Going from 2% to 6% inflation at an income of $3000 per month is like losing $700 over the course of a year, which could be a month of groceries for a family of four. (Not that anyone can really raise a family of four on a single middle-class income these days. When did The Simpsons begin to seem aspirational?)

But this isn’t the whole story. Suppose that this same family of four had a mortgage payment of $1000 per month; that is also decreasing in real value by the same proportion. And let’s assume it’s a fixed-rate mortgage, as most are, so we don’t have to factor in any changes in interest rates.

With no inflation, their mortgage payment remains $1000. It’s 33.3% of their income this year, and it will be 33.0% of their income next year after they get that 1% raise.

With 2% inflation, their mortgage payment will also fall by 0.16% per month; $998 in February, $996 in March, and so on, down to $980 in December. This amounts to an increase in real income of about $130—taking away a third of the loss that was introduced by the inflation.

With 6% inflation, their mortgage payment will also fall by 0.49% per month; $995 in February, $990 in March, and so on, until it’s only $943 in December. This amounts to an increase in real income of over $370—again taking away a third of the loss.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that it’s one third; the proportion of lost real income you’ll get back by cheaper mortgage payments is precisely the proportion of your income that was spent on mortgage payments at the start—so if, like too many Americans, they are paying more than a third of their income on mortgage, their real loss of income from inflation will be even lower.

And what if they are renting instead? They’re probably on an annual lease, so that payment won’t increase in nominal terms either—and hence will decrease in real terms, in just the same way as a mortgage payment. Likewise car payments, credit card payments, any debt that has a fixed interest rate. If they’re still paying back student loans, their financial situation is almost certainly improved by inflation.

This means that the real loss from an increase of inflation from 2% to 6% is something like 1.5% of total income, or about $500 for a typical American adult. That’s clearly not nearly as bad as a similar increase in unemployment, which would translate one-to-one into lost income on average; moreover, this loss would be concentrated among people who lost their jobs, so it’s actually worse than that once you account for risk aversion. It’s clearly better to lose 1% of your income than to have a 1% chance of losing nearly all your income—and inflation is the former while unemployment is the latter.

Indeed, the only reason you lost purchasing power at all was that your cost-of-living increases didn’t occur often enough. If instead you had a labor contract that instituted cost-of-living raises every month, or even every paycheck, instead of every year, you would get all the benefits of a cheaper mortgage and virtually none of the costs of a weaker paycheck. Convince your employer to make this adjustment, and you will actually benefit from higher inflation.

So if poor and middle-class people are upset about eroding purchasing power, they should be mad at their employers for not implementing more frequent cost-of-living adjustments; the inflation itself really isn’t the problem.

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?

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?