The right (and wrong) way to buy stocks

July 9, JDN 2457944

Most people don’t buy stocks at all. Stock equity is the quintessential form of financial wealth, and 42% of financial net wealth in the United States is held by the top 1%, while the bottom 80% owns essentially none.

Half of American households do not have any private retirement savings at all, and are depending either on employee pensions or Social Security for their retirement plans.

This is not necessarily irrational. In order to save for retirement, one must first have sufficient income to live on. Indeed, I got very annoyed at a “financial planning seminar” for grad students I attended recently, trying to scare us about the fact that almost none of us had any meaningful retirement savings. No, we shouldn’t have meaningful retirement savings, because our income is currently much lower than what we can expect to get once we graduate and enter our professions. It doesn’t make sense for someone scraping by on a $20,000 per year graduate student stipend to be saving up for retirement, when they can quite reasonably expect to be making $70,000-$100,000 per year once they finally get that PhD and become a professional economist (or sociologist, or psychologist or physicist or statistician or political scientist or material, mechanical, chemical, or aerospace engineer, or college professor in general, etc.). Even social workers, historians, and archaeologists make a lot more money than grad students. If you are already in the workforce and only expect to be getting small raises in the future, maybe you should start saving for retirement in your 20s. If you’re a grad student, don’t bother. It’ll be a lot easier to save once your income triples after graduation. (Personally, I keep about $700 in stocks mostly to get a feel for what it is like owning and trading stocks that I will apply later, not out of any serious expectation to support a retirement fund. Even at Warren Buffet-level returns I wouldn’t make more than $200 a year this way.)

Total US retirement savings are over $25 trillion, which… does actually sound low to me. In a country with a GDP now over $19 trillion, that means we’ve only saved a year and change of total income. If we had a rapidly growing population this might be fine, but we don’t; our population is fairly stable. People seem to be relying on economic growth to provide for their retirement, and since we are almost certainly at steady-state capital stock and fairly near full employment, that means waiting for technological advancement.

So basically people are hoping that we get to the Wall-E future where the robots will provide for us. And hey, maybe we will; but assuming that we haven’t abandoned capitalism by then (as they certainly haven’t in Wall-E), maybe you should try to make sure you own some assets to pay for robots with?

But okay, let’s set all that aside, and say you do actually want to save for retirement. How should you go about doing it?

Stocks are clearly the way to go. A certain proportion of government bonds also makes sense as a hedge against risk, and maybe you should even throw in the occasional commodity future. I wouldn’t recommend oil or coal at this point—either we do something about climate change and those prices plummet, or we don’t and we’ve got bigger problems—but it’s hard to go wrong with corn or steel, and for this one purpose it also can make sense to buy gold as well. Gold is not a magical panacea or the foundation of all wealth, but its price does tend to correlate negatively with stock returns, so it’s not a bad risk hedge.

Don’t buy exotic derivatives unless you really know what you’re doing—they can make a lot of money, but they can lose it just as fast—and never buy non-portfolio assets as a financial investment. If your goal is to buy something to make money, make it something you can trade at the click of a button. Buy a house because you want to live in that house. Buy wine because you like drinking wine. Don’t buy a house in the hopes of making a financial return—you’ll have leveraged your entire portfolio 10 to 1 while leaving it completely undiversified. And the problem with investing in wine, ironically, is its lack of liquidity.

The core of your investment portfolio should definitely be stocks. The biggest reason for this is the equity premium; equities—that is, stocks—get returns so much higher than other assets that it’s actually baffling to most economists. Bond returns are currently terrible, while stock returns are currently fantastic. The former is currently near 0% in inflation-adjusted terms, while the latter is closer to 16%. If this continues for the next 10 years, that means that $1000 put in bonds would be worth… $1000, while $1000 put in stocks would be worth $4400. So, do you want to keep the same amount of money, or quadruple your money? It’s up to you.

Higher risk is generally associated with higher return, because rational investors will only accept additional risk when they get some additional benefit from it; and stocks are indeed riskier than most other assets, but not that much riskier. For this to be rational, people would need to be extremely risk-averse, to the point where they should never drive a car or eat a cheeseburger. (Of course, human beings are terrible at assessing risk, so what I really think is going on is that people wildly underestimate the risk of driving a car and wildly overestimate the risk of buying stocks.)

Next, you may be asking: How does one buy stocks? This doesn’t seem to be something people teach in school.

You will need a brokerage of some sort. There are many such brokerages, but they are basically all equivalent except for the fees they charge. Some of them will try to offer you various bells and whistles to justify whatever additional cut they get of your trades, but they are almost never worth it. You should choose one that has a low a trade fee as possible, because even a few dollars here and there can add up surprisingly quickly.

Fortunately, there is now at least one well-established reliable stock brokerage available to almost anyone that has a standard trade fee of zero. They are called Robinhood, and I highly recommend them. If they have any downside, it is ironically that they make trading too easy, so you can be tempted to do it too often. Learn to resist that urge, and they will serve you well and cost you nothing.

Now, which stocks should you buy? There are a lot of them out there. The answer I’m going to give may sound strange: All of them. You should buy all the stocks.

All of them? How can you buy all of them? Wouldn’t that be ludicrously expensive?

No, it’s quite affordable in fact. In my little $700 portfolio, I own every single stock in the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ. If I get a little extra money to save, I may expand to own every stock in Europe and China as well.

How? A clever little arrangement called an exchange-traded fund, or ETF for short. An ETF is actually a form of mutual fund, where the fund purchases shares in a huge array of stocks, and adjusts what they own to precisely track the behavior of an entire stock market (such as the S&P 500). Then what you can buy is shares in that mutual fund, which are usually priced somewhere between $100 and $300 each. As the price of stocks in the market rises, the price of shares in the mutual fund rises to match, and you can reap the same capital gains they do.

A major advantage of this arrangement, especially for a typical person who isn’t well-versed in stock markets, is that it requires almost no attention at your end. You can buy into a few ETFs and then leave your money to sit there, knowing that it will grow as long as the overall stock market grows.

But there is an even more important advantage, which is that it maximizes your diversification. I said earlier that you shouldn’t buy a house as an investment, because it’s not at all diversified. What I mean by this is that the price of that house depends only on one thing—that house itself. If the price of that house changes, the full change is reflected immediately in the value of your asset. In fact, if you have 10% down on a mortgage, the full change is reflected ten times over in your net wealth, because you are leveraged 10 to 1.

An ETF is basically the opposite of that. Instead of its price depending on only one thing, it depends on a vast array of things, averaging over the prices of literally hundreds or thousands of different corporations. When some fall, others will rise. On average, as long as the economy continues to grow, they will rise.

The result is that you can get the same average return you would from owning stocks, while dramatically reducing the risk you bear.

To see how this works, consider the past year’s performance of Apple (AAPL), which has done very well, versus Fitbit (FIT), which has done very poorly, compared with the NASDAQ as a whole, of which they are both part.

AAPL has grown over 50% (40 log points) in the last year; so if you’d bought $1000 of their stock a year ago it would be worth $1500. FIT has fallen over 60% (84 log points) in the same time, so if you’d bought $1000 of their stock instead, it would be worth only $400. That’s the risk you’re taking by buying individual stocks.

Whereas, if you had simply bought a NASDAQ ETF a year ago, your return would be 35%, so that $1000 would be worth $1350.

Of course, that does mean you don’t get as high a return as you would if you had managed to choose the highest-performing stock on that index. But you’re unlikely to be able to do that, as even professional financial forecasters are worse than random chance. So, would you rather take a 50-50 shot between gaining $500 and losing $600, or would you prefer a guaranteed $350?

If higher return is not your only goal, and you want to be socially responsible in your investments, there are ETFs for that too. Instead of buying the whole stock market, these funds buy only a section of the market that is associated with some social benefit, such as lower carbon emissions or better representation of women in management. On average, you can expect a slightly lower return this way; but you are also helping to make a better world. And still your average return is generally going to be better than it would be if you tried to pick individual stocks yourself. In fact, certain classes of socially-responsible funds—particularly green tech and women’s representation—actually perform better than conventional ETFs, probably because most investors undervalue renewable energy and, well, also undervalue women. Women CEOs perform better at lower prices; why would you not want to buy their companies?

In fact ETFs are not literally guaranteed—the market as a whole does move up and down, so it is possible to lose money even by buying ETFs. But because the risk is so much lower, your odds of losing money are considerably reduced. And on average, an ETF will, by construction, perform exactly as well as the average performance of a randomly-chosen stock from that market.

Indeed, I am quite convinced that most people don’t take enough risk on their investment portfolios, because they confuse two very different types of risk.

The kind you should be worried about is idiosyncratic risk, which is risk tied to a particular investment—the risk of having chosen the Fitbit instead of Apple. But a lot of the time people seem to be avoiding market risk, which is the risk tied to changes in the market as a whole. Avoiding market risk does reduce your chances of losing money, but it does so at the cost of reducing your chances of making money even more.

Idiosyncratic risk is basically all downside. Yeah, you could get lucky; but you could just as well get unlucky. Far better if you could somehow average over that risk and get the average return. But with diversification, that is exactly what you can do. Then you are left only with market risk, which is the kind of risk that is directly tied to higher average returns.

Young people should especially be willing to take more risk in their portfolios. As you get closer to retirement, it becomes important to have more certainty about how much money will really be available to you once you retire. But if retirement is still 30 years away, the thing you should care most about is maximizing your average return. That means taking on a lot of market risk, which is then less risky overall if you diversify away the idiosyncratic risk.

I hope now that I have convinced you to avoid buying individual stocks. For most people most of the time, this is the advice you need to hear. Don’t try to forecast the market, don’t try to outperform the indexes; just buy and hold some ETFs and leave your money alone to grow.

But if you really must buy individual stocks, either because you think you are savvy enough to beat the forecasters or because you enjoy the gamble, here’s some additional advice I have for you.

My first piece of advice is that you should still buy ETFs. Even if you’re willing to risk some of your wealth on greater gambles, don’t risk all of it that way.

My second piece of advice is to buy primarily large, well-established companies (like Apple or Microsoft or Ford or General Electric). Their stocks certainly do rise and fall, but they are unlikely to completely crash and burn the way that young companies like Fitbit can.

My third piece of advice is to watch the price-earnings ratio (P/E for short). Roughly speaking, this is the number of years it would take for the profits of this corporation to pay off the value of its stock. If they pay most of their profits in dividends, it is approximately how many years you’d need to hold the stock in order to get as much in dividends as you paid for the shares.

Do you want P/E to be large or small? You want it to be small. This is called value investing, but it really should just be called “investing”. The alternatives to value investing are actually not investment but speculation and arbitrage. If you are actually investing, you are buying into companies that are currently undervalued; you want them to be cheap.

Of course, it is not always easy to tell whether a company is undervalued. A common rule-of-thumb is that you should aim for a P/E around 20 (20 years to pay off means about 5% return in dividends); if the P/E is below 10, it’s a fantastic deal, and if it is above 30, it might not be worth the price. But reality is of course more complicated than this. You don’t actually care about current earnings, you care about future earnings, and it could be that a company which is earning very little now will earn more later, or vice-versa. The more you can learn about a company, the better judgment you can make about their future profitability; this is another reason why it makes sense to buy large, well-known companies rather than tiny startups.

My final piece of advice is not to trade too frequently. Especially with something like Robinhood where trades are instant and free, it can be tempting to try to ride every little ripple in the market. Up 0.5%? Sell! Down 0.3%? Buy! And yes, in principle, if you could perfectly forecast every such fluctuation, this would be optimal—and make you an almost obscene amount of money. But you can’t. We know you can’t. You need to remember that you can’t. You should only trade if one of two things happens: Either your situation changes, or the company’s situation changes. If you need the money, sell, to get the money. If you have extra savings, buy, to give those savings a good return. If something bad happened to the company and their profits are going to fall, sell. If something good happened to the company and their profits are going to rise, buy. Otherwise, hold. In the long run, those who hold stocks longer are better off.

What can we do to make the world a better place?

JDN 2457475

There are an awful lot of big problems in the world: war, poverty, oppression, disease, terrorism, crime… I could go on for awhile, but I think you get the idea. Solving or even mitigating these huge global problems could improve or even save the lives of millions of people.

But precisely because these problems are so big, they can also make us feel powerless. What can one person, or even a hundred people, do against problems on this scale?

The answer is quite simple: Do your share.

No one person can solve any of these problems—not even someone like Bill Gates, though he for one at least can have a significant impact on poverty and disease because he is so spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich; the Gates Foundation has a huge impact because it has as much wealth as the annual budget of the NIH.

But all of us together can have an enormous impact. This post today is about helping you see just how cheap and easy it would be to end world hunger and cure poverty-related diseases, if we simply got enough people to contribute.

The Against Malaria Foundation releases annual reports for all their regular donors. I recently got a report that my donations personally account for 1/100,000 of their total assets. That’s terrible. The global population is 7 billion people; in the First World alone it’s over 1 billion. I am the 0.01%, at least when it comes to donations to the Against Malaria Foundation.

I’ve given them only $850. Their total assets are only $80 million. They shouldn’t have $80 million—they should have $80 billion. So, please, if you do nothing else as a result of this post, go make a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation. I am entirely serious; if you think you might forget or change your mind, do it right now. Even a dollar would be worth it. If everyone in the First World gave $1, they would get 12 times as much as they currently have.

GiveWell is an excellent source for other places you should donate; they rate charities around the world for their cost-effectiveness in the only way worth doing: Lives saved per dollar donated. They don’t just naively look at what percentage goes to administrative costs; they look at how everything is being spent and how many children have their diseases cured.

Until the end of April, UNICEF is offering an astonishing five times matching funds—meaning that if you donate $10, a full $50 goes to UNICEF projects. I have really mixed feelings about donors that offer matching funds (So what you’re saying is, you won’t give if we don’t?), but when they are being offered, use them.

All those charities are focused on immediate poverty reduction; if you’re looking for somewhere to give that fights Existential Risk, I highly recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists—one of the few Existential Risk organizations that uses evidence-based projections and recognizes that nuclear weapons and climate change are the threats we need to worry about.

And let’s not be too anthropocentrist; there are a lot of other sentient beings on this planet, and Animal Charity Evaluator can help you find which charities will best improve the lives of other animals.

I’ve just listed a whole bunch of ways you can give money—and that probably is the best thing for you to give; your time is probably most efficiently used working in your own profession whatever that may be—but there are other ways you can contribute as well.

One simple but important change you can make, if you haven’t already, is to become vegetarian. Even aside from the horrific treatment of animals in industrial farming, you don’t have to believe that animals deserve rights to understand that meat is murder. Meat production is a larger contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, so everyone becoming vegetarian would have a larger impact against climate change than taking literally every car and truck in the world off the road. Since the world population is less than 10 billion, meat is 18% of greenhouse emissions and the IPCC projects that climate change will kill between 10 and 100 million people over the next century, every 500 to 5000 new vegetarians saves a life.

You can move your money from a bank to a credit union, as even the worst credit unions are generally better than the best for-profit banks, and the worst for-profit banks are very, very bad. The actual transition can be fairly inconvenient, but a good credit union will provide you with all the same services, and most credit unions link their networks and have online banking, so for example I can still deposit and withdraw from my University of Michigan Credit Union account while in California.

Another thing you can do is reduce your consumption of sweatshop products in favor of products manufactured under fair labor standards. This is harder than it sounds; it can be very difficult to tell what a company’s true labor conditions are like, as the worst companies work very hard to hide them (now, if they worked half as hard to improve them… it reminds me of how many students seem willing to do twice as much work to cheat as they would to simply learn the material in the first place).

You should not simply stop buying products that say “Made in China”; in fact, this could be counterproductive. We want products to be made in China; we need products to be made in China. What we have to do is improve labor standards in China, so that products made in China are like products made in Japan or Korea—skilled workers with high-paying jobs in high-tech factories. Presumably it doesn’t bother you when something says “Made in Switzerland” or “Made in the UK”, because you know their labor standards are at least as high as our own; that’s where I’d like to get with “Made in China”.

The simplest way to do this is of course to buy Fair Trade products, particularly coffee and chocolate. But most products are not available Fair Trade (there are no Fair Trade computers, and only loose analogues for clothing and shoes).

Moreover, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; companies that have done terrible things in the past may still be the best companies to support, because there are no alternatives that are any better. In order to incentivize improvement, we must buy from the least of all evils for awhile until the new competitive pressure makes non-evil corporations viable. With this in mind, the Fair Labor Association may not be wrong to endorse companies like Adidas and Apple, even though they surely have substantial room to improve. Similarly, few companies on the Ethisphere list are spotless, but they probably are genuinely better than their competitors. (Well, those that have competitors; Hasbro is on there. Name a well-known board game, and odds are it’s made by a Hasbro subsidiary: they own Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and Wizards of the Coast. Wikipedia has their own category, Hasbro subsidiaries. Maybe they’ve been trying to tell us something with all those versions of Monopoly?)

I’m not very happy with the current state of labor standards reporting (much less labor standards enforcement), so I don’t want to recommend any of these sources too highly. But if you are considering buying from one of three companies and only one of them is endorsed by the Fair Labor Association, it couldn’t hurt to buy from that one instead of the others.

Buying from ethical companies will generally be more expensive—but rarely prohibitively so, and this is part of how we use price signals to incentivize better behavior. For about a year, BP gasoline was clearly cheaper than other gasoline, because nobody wanted to buy from BP and they were forced to sell at a discount after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Their profits tanked as a result. That’s the kind of outcome we want—preferably for a longer period of time.

I suppose you could also save money by buying cheaper products and then donate the difference, and in the short run this would actually be most cost-effective for global utility; but (1) nobody really does that; people who buy Fair Trade also tend to donate more, maybe just because they are more generous in general, and (2) in the long run what we actually want is more ethical businesses, not a system where businesses exploit everyone and then we rely upon private charity to compensate us for our exploitation. For similar reasons, philanthropy is a stopgap—and a much-needed one—but not a solution.

Of course, you can vote. And don’t just vote in the big name elections like President of the United States. Your personal impact may actually be larger from voting in legislatures and even local elections and ballot proposals. Certainly your probability of being a deciding vote is far larger, though this is compensated by the smaller effect of the resulting policies. Most US states have a website where you can look up any upcoming ballots you’ll be eligible to vote on, so you can plan out your decisions well in advance.

You may even want to consider running for office at the local level, though I realize this is a very large commitment. But most local officials run uncontested, which means there is no real democracy at work there at all.

Finally, you can contribute in some small way to making the world a better place simply by spreading the word, as I hope I’m doing right now.

We do not benefit from economic injustice.

JDN 2457461

Recently I think I figured out why so many middle-class White Americans express so much guilt about global injustice: A lot of people seem to think that we actually benefit from it. Thus, they feel caught between a rock and a hard place; conquering injustice would mean undermining their own already precarious standard of living, while leaving it in place is unconscionable.

The compromise, is apparently to feel really, really guilty about it, constantly tell people to “check their privilege” in this bizarre form of trendy autoflagellation, and then… never really get around to doing anything about the injustice.

(I guess that’s better than the conservative interpretation, which seems to be that since we benefit from this, we should keep doing it, and make sure we elect big, strong leaders who will make that happen.)

So let me tell you in no uncertain words: You do not benefit from this.

If anyone does—and as I’ll get to in a moment, that is not even necessarily true—then it is the billionaires who own the multinational corporations that orchestrate these abuses. Billionaires and billionaires only stand to gain from the exploitation of workers in the US, China, and everywhere else.

How do I know this with such certainty? Allow me to explain.

First of all, it is a common perception that prices of goods would be unattainably high if they were not produced on the backs of sweatshop workers. This perception is mistaken. The primary effect of the exploitation is simply to raise the profits of the corporation; there is a secondary effect of raising the price a moderate amount; and even this would be overwhelmed by the long-run dynamic effect of the increased consumer spending if workers were paid fairly.

Let’s take an iPad, for example. The price of iPads varies around the world in a combination of purchasing power parity and outright price discrimination; but the top model almost never sells for less than $500. The raw material expenditure involved in producing one is about $370—and the labor expenditure? Just $11. Not $110; $11. If it had been $110, the price could still be kept under $500 and turn a profit; it would simply be much smaller. That is, even if prices are really so elastic that Americans would refuse to buy an iPad at any more than $500 that would still mean Apple could still afford to raise the wages they pay (or rather, their subcontractors pay) workers by an order of magnitude. A worker who currently works 50 hours a week for $10 per day could now make $10 per hour. And the price would not have to change; Apple would simply lose profit, which is why they don’t do this. In the absence of pressure to the contrary, corporations will do whatever they can to maximize profits.

Now, in fact, the price probably would go up, because Apple fans are among the most inelastic technology consumers in the world. But suppose it went up to $600, which would mean a 1:1 absorption of these higher labor expenditures into price. Does that really sound like “Americans could never afford this”? A few people right on the edge might decide they couldn’t buy it at that price, but it wouldn’t be very many—indeed, like any well-managed monopoly, Apple knows to stop raising the price at the point where they start losing more revenue than they gain.

Similarly, half the price of an iPhone is pure profit for Apple, and only 2% goes into labor. Once again, wages could be raised by an order of magnitude and the price would not need to change.

Apple is a particularly obvious example, but it’s quite simple to see why exploitative labor cannot be the source of improved economic efficiency. Paying workers less does not make them do better work. Treating people more harshly does not improve their performance. Quite the opposite: People work much harder when they are treated well. In addition, at the levels of income we’re talking about, small improvements in wages would result in substantial improvements in worker health, further improving performance. Finally, substitution effect dominates income effect at low incomes. At very high incomes, income effect can dominate substitution effect, so higher wages might result in less work—but it is precisely when we’re talking about poor people that it makes the least sense to say they would work less if you paid them more and treated them better.

At most, paying higher wages can redistribute existing wealth, if we assume that the total amount of wealth does not increase. So it’s theoretically possible that paying higher wages to sweatshop workers would result in them getting some of the stuff that we currently have (essentially by a price mechanism where the things we want get more expensive, but our own wages don’t go up). But in fact our wages are most likely too low as well—wages in the US have become unlinked from productivity, around the time of Reagan—so there’s reason to think that a more just system would improve our standard of living also. Where would all the extra wealth come from? Well, there’s an awful lot of room at the top.

The top 1% in the US own 35% of net wealth, about as much as the bottom 95%. The 400 billionaires of the Forbes list have more wealth than the entire African-American population combined. (We’re double-counting Oprah—but that’s it, she’s the only African-American billionaire in the US.) So even assuming that the total amount of wealth remains constant (which is too conservative, as I’ll get to in a moment), improving global labor standards wouldn’t need to pull any wealth from the middle class; it could get plenty just from the top 0.01%.

In surveys, most Americans are willing to pay more for goods in order to improve labor standards—and the amounts that people are willing to pay, while they may seem small (on the order of 10% to 20% more), are in fact clearly enough that they could substantially increase the wages of sweatshop workers. The biggest problem is that corporations are so good at covering their tracks that it’s difficult to know whether you are really supporting higher labor standards. The multiple layers of international subcontractors make things even more complicated; the people who directly decide the wages are not the people who ultimately profit from them, because subcontractors are competitive while the multinationals that control them are monopsonists.

But for now I’m not going to deal with the thorny question of how we can actually regulate multinational corporations to stop them from using sweatshops. Right now, I just really want to get everyone on the same page and be absolutely clear about cui bono. If there is a benefit at all, it’s not going to you and me.

Why do I keep saying “if”? As so many people will ask me: “Isn’t it obvious that if one person gets less money, someone else must get more?” If you’ve been following my blog at all, you know that the answer is no.

On a single transaction, with everything else held constant, that is true. But we’re not talking about a single transaction. We’re talking about a system of global markets. Indeed, we’re not really talking about money at all; we’re talking about wealth.

By paying their workers so little that those workers can barely survive, corporations are making it impossible for those workers to go out and buy things of their own. Since the costs of higher wages are concentrated in one corporation while the benefits of higher wages are spread out across society, there is a Tragedy of the Commons where each corporation acting in its own self-interest undermines the consumer base that would have benefited all corporations (not to mention people who don’t own corporations). It does depend on some parameters we haven’t measured very precisely, but under a wide range of plausible values, it works out that literally everyone is worse off under this system than they would have been under a system of fair wages.

This is not simply theoretical. We have empirical data about what happened when companies (in the US at least) stopped using an even more extreme form of labor exploitation: slavery.

Because we were on the classical gold standard, GDP growth in the US in the 19th century was extremely erratic, jumping up and down as high as 10 lp and as low as -5 lp. But if you try to smooth out this roller-coaster business cycle, you can see that our growth rate did not appear tobe slowed by the ending of slavery:

US_GDP_growth_1800s

 

Looking at the level of real per capita GDP (on a log scale) shows a continuous growth trend as if nothing had changed at all:

US_GDP_per_capita_1800s

In fact, if you average the growth rates (in log points, averaging makes sense) from 1800 to 1860 as antebellum and from 1865 to 1900 as postbellum, you find that the antebellum growth rate averaged 1.04 lp, while the postbellum growth rate averaged 1.77 lp. Over a period of 50 years, that’s the difference between growing by a factor of 1.7 and growing by a factor of 2.4. Of course, there were a lot of other factors involved besides the end of slavery—but at the very least it seems clear that ending slavery did not reduce economic growth, which it would have if slavery were actually an efficient economic system.

This is a different question from whether slaveowners were irrational in continuing to own slaves. Purely on the basis of individual profit, it was most likely rational to own slaves. But the broader effects on the economic system as a whole were strongly negative. I think that part of why the debate on whether slavery is economically inefficient has never been settled is a confusion between these two questions. One side says “Slavery damaged overall economic growth.” The other says “But owning slaves produced a rate of return for investors as high as manufacturing!” Yeah, those… aren’t answering the same question. They are in fact probably both true. Something can be highly profitable for individuals while still being tremendously damaging to society.

I don’t mean to imply that sweatshops are as bad as slavery; they are not. (Though there is still slavery in the world, and some sweatshops tread a fine line.) What I’m saying is that showing that sweatshops are profitable (no doubt there) or even that they are better than most of the alternatives for their workers (probably true in most cases) does not show that they are economically efficient. Sweatshops are beneficent exploitationthey make workers better off, but in an obviously unjust way. And they only make workers better off compared to the current alternatives; if they were replaced with industries paying fair wages, workers would obviously be much better off still.

And my point is, so would we. While the prices of goods would increase slightly in the short run, in the long run the increased consumer spending by people in Third World countries—which soon would cease to be Third World countries, as happened in Korea and Japan—would result in additional trade with us that would raise our standard of living, not lower it. The only people it is even plausible to think would be harmed are the billionaires who own our multinational corporations; and yet even they might stand to benefit from the improved efficiency of the global economy.

No, you do not benefit from sweatshops. So stop feeling guilty, stop worrying so much about “checking your privilege”—and let’s get out there and do something about it.

How about we listen to the Nobel Laureate when we set our taxes?

JDN 2457321 EDT 11:20

I know I’m going out on a limb here, but I think it would generally be a good thing if we based our tax system on the advice of Nobel Laureate economists. Joseph Stiglitz wrote a tax policy paper for the Roosevelt Institution last year that describes in detail how our tax system could be reformed to simultaneously restore economic growth, reduce income inequality, promote environmental sustainability, and in the long run even balance the budget. What’s more, he did the math (I suppose Nobel Laureate economists are known for that), and it looks like his plan would actually work.

The plan is good enough that I think it’s worth going through in some detail.

He opens by reminding us that our “debt crisis” is of our own making, the result of politicians (and voters) who don’t understand economics:

“But we should be clear that these crises – which have resulted in a government shutdown and a near default on the national debt – are not economic but political. The U.S. is not like Greece, unable to borrow to fund its debt and deficit. Indeed, the U.S. has been borrowing at negative real interest rates.”

Stiglitz pulls no punches against bad policies, and isn’t afraid to single out conservatives:

“We also show that some of the so-called reforms that conservatives propose would be counterproductive – they could simultaneously reduce growth and economic welfare and increase unemployment and inequality. It would be better to have no reform than these reforms.”

A lot of the news media keep trying to paint Bernie Sanders as a far-left radical candidate (like this article in Politico calling his hometown the “People’s Republic of Burlington”), because he says things like this: “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”

But the following statement was not said by Bernie Sanders, it was said by Joseph Stiglitz, who I will remind you one last time is a world-renowned Nobel Laureate economist:

“The weaknesses in the labor market are reflected in low wages and stagnating incomes. That helps explain why 95 percent of the increase in incomes in the three years after the recovery officially began went to the upper 1 percent. For most Americans, there has been no recovery.”

It was also Stiglitz who said this:

“The American Dream is, in reality, a myth. The U.S. has some of the worst inequality across generations (social mobility) among wealthy nations. The life prospects of a young American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in other advanced countries.”

In this country, we have reached the point where policies supported by the analysis of world-renowned economists is considered far-left radicalism, while the “mainstream conservative” view is a system of tax policy that is based on pure fantasy, which has been called “puppies and rainbows” by serious policy analysts and “voodoo economics” by yet another Nobel Laureate economist. A lot of very smart people don’t understand what’s happening in our political system, and want “both sides” to be “equally wrong”, but that is simply not the case: Basic facts of not just social science (e.g. Keynesian monetary policy), but indeed natural science (evolutionary biology, anthropogenic climate change) are now considered “political controversies” because the right wing doesn’t want to believe them.

But let’s get back to the actual tax plan Stiglitz is proposing. He is in favor of raising some taxes and lowering others, spending more on some things and less on other things. His basic strategy is actually quite simple: Raise taxes with low multipliers and cut taxes with high multipliers. Raise spending with high multipliers and cut spending with low multipliers.

“While in general taxes take money out of the system, and therefore have a deflationary bias, some taxes have a larger multiplier than others, i.e. lead to a greater reduction in aggregate demand per dollar of revenue raised. Taxes on the rich and superrich, who save a large fraction of their income, have the least adverse effect on aggregate demand. Taxes on lower income individuals have the most adverse effect on aggregate demand.”

In other words, by making the tax system more progressive, we can directly stimulate economic growth while still increasing the amount of tax revenue we raise. And of course we have plenty of other moral and economic reasons to prefer progressive taxation.

Stiglitz tears apart the “job creator” myth:

“It is important to dispel a misunderstanding that one often hears from advocates of lower taxes for the rich and corporations, which contends that the rich are the job producers, and anything that reduces their income will reduce their ability and incentive to create jobs. First, at the current time, it is not lack of funds that is holding back investment. It is not even a weak and dysfunctional financial sector. America’s large corporations are sitting on more than $2 trillion in cash. What is holding back investment, especially by large corporations, is the lack of demand for their products.”

Stiglitz talks about two principles of taxation to follow:

First is the Generalized Henry George Principle, that we should focus taxes on things that are inelastic, meaning their supply isn’t likely to change much with the introduction of a tax. Henry George favored taxing land, which is quite inelastic indeed. The reason we do this is to reduce the economic distortions created by a tax; the goal is to collect revenue without changing the number of real products that are bought and sold. We need to raise revenue and we want to redistribute income, but we want to do it without creating unnecessary inefficiencies in the rest of the economy.

Second is the Generalized Polluter Pays Principle, that we should tax things that have negative externalities—effects on other people that are harmful. When a transaction causes harm to others who were not party to the transaction, we should tax that transaction in an amount equal to the harm that it would cause, and then use that revenue to offset the damage. In effect, if you hurt someone else, you should have to pay to clean up your own mess. This makes obvious moral sense, but it also makes good economic sense; taxing externalities can improve economic efficiency and actually make everyone better off. The obvious example is again pollution (the original Polluter Pays Principle), but there are plenty of other examples as well.

Stiglitz of course supports taxes on pollution and carbon emissions, which really should be a no-brainer. They aren’t just good for the environment, they would directly increase economic efficiency. The only reason we don’t have comprehensive pollution taxes (or something similar like cap-and-trade) is again the political pressure of right-wing interests.

Stiglitz focuses in particular on the externalities of the financial system, the boom-and-bust cycle of bubble, crisis, crash that has characterized so much of our banking system for generations. With a few exceptions, almost every major economic crisis has been preceded by some sort of breakdown of the financial system (and typically widespread fraud by the way). It is not much exaggeration to say that without Wall Street there would be no depressions. Externalities don’t get a whole lot bigger than that.

Stiglitz proposes a system of financial transaction taxes that are designed to create incentives against the most predatory practices in finance, especially the high-frequency trading in which computer algorithms steal money from the rest of the economy thousands of times per second. Even a 0.01% tax on each financial transaction would probably be enough to eliminate this particular activity.

He also suggests the implementation of “bonus taxes” which disincentivize paying bonuses, which could basically be as simple as removing the deductions placed during the Clinton administration (in a few years are we going to have to say “the first Clinton administration”?) that exempt “performance-based pay” from most forms of income tax. All pay is performance-based, or supposed to be. There should be no special exemption for bonuses and stock options.

Stiglitz also proposes a “bank rescue fund” which would be something like an expansion of the FDIC insurance that banks are already required to have, but designed as catastrophe insurance for the whole macroeconomy. Instead of needing bailed out from general government funds, banks would only be bailed out from a pool of insurance funds they paid in themselves. This could work, but honestly I think I’d rather reduce the moral hazard even more by saying that we will never again bail out banks directly, but instead bail out consumers and real businesses. This would probably save banks anyway (most people don’t default on debts if they can afford to pay them), and if it doesn’t, I don’t see why we should care. The only reason banks exist is to support the real economy; if we can support the real economy without them, they deserve to die. That basic fact seems to have been lost somewhere along the way, and we keep talking about how to save or stabilize the financial system as if it were valuable unto itself.

Stiglitz also proposes much stricter regulations on credit cards, which would require them to charge much lower transaction fees and also pay a portion of their transaction revenue in taxes. I think it’s fair to ask whether we need credit cards at all, or if there’s some alternative banking system that would allow people to make consumer purchases without paying 20% annual interest. (It seems like there ought to be, doesn’t it?)

Next Stiglitz gets to his proposal to reform the corporate income tax. Like many of us, he is sick of corporations like Apple and GE with ten and eleven-figure profits paying little or no taxes by exploiting a variety of loopholes. He points out some of the more egregious ones, like the “step up of basis at death” which allows inherited capital to avoid taxation (personally, I think both morally and economically the optimal inheritance tax rate is 100%!), as well as the various loopholes on offshore accounting which allow corporations to design and sell their products in the US, even manufacture them here, and pay taxes as if all their work were done in the Cayman Islands. He also points out that the argument that corporate taxes disincentivize investment is ridiculous, because most investment is financed by corporate bonds which are tax-deductible.

Stiglitz departs from most other economists in that he actually proposes raising the corporate tax rate itself. Most economists favor cutting the rate on paper, then closing the loopholes to ensure that the new rate is actually paid. Stiglitz says this is not enough, and we must both close the loopholes and increase the rate.

I’m actually not sure I agree with him on this; the incidence of corporate taxes is not very well-understood, and I think there’s a legitimate worry that taxing Apple will make iPhones more expensive without actually taking any money from Tim Cook. I think it would be better to get rid of the corporate tax entirely and then dramatically raise the marginal rates on personal income, including not only labor income but also all forms of capital income. Instead of taxing Apple hoping it will pass through to Tim Cook, I say we just tax Tim Cook. Directly tax his $4 million salary and $70 million in stock options.

Stiglitz does have an interesting proposal to introduce “rent-seeking” taxes that specifically apply to corporations which exercise monopoly or oligopoly power. If you can actually get this to work, it’s very clever; you could actually create a market incentive for corporations to support their own competition—and not in the sense of collusion but in the sense of actually trying to seek out more competitive markets in order to avoid the monopoly tax. Unfortunately, Stiglitz is a little vague on how we’d actually pull that off.

One thing I do agree with Stiglitz on is the use of refundable tax credits to support real investment. Instead of this weird business about not taxing dividends and capital gains in the hope that maybe somehow this will support real investment, we actually give tax credits specifically to companies that build factories or hire more workers.

Stiglitz also does a good job of elucidating the concept of “corporate welfare”, officially called “tax expenditures”, in which subsidies for corporations are basically hidden in the tax code as rebates or deductions. This is actually what Obama was talking about when he said “spending in the tax code”, (he did not invent the concept of tax expenditures), but since he didn’t explain himself well even Jon Stewart accused him of Orwellian Newspeak. Economically a refundable tax rebate of $10,000 is exactly the same thing as a subsidy of $10,000. There are some practical and psychological differences, but there are no real economic differences. If you’re still confused about tax expenditures, the Center for American Progress has a good policy memo on the subject.

Stiglitz also has some changes to make to the personal income tax, all of which I think are spot-on. First we increase the marginal rates, particularly at the very top. Next we equalize rates on all forms of income, including capital income. Next, we remove most, if not all, of the deductions that allow people to avoid paying the rate it says on paper. Finally, we dramatically simplify the tax code so that the majority of people can file a simplified return which basically just says, “This is my income. This is the tax rate for that income. This is what I owe.” You wouldn’t have to worry about itemizing your student loans or mortgage payments or whatever else; just tally up your income and look up your rate. As he points out, this would save a lot of people a lot of stress and also remove a lot of economic distortions.

He talks about how we can phase out the mortgage-interest deduction in particular, because it’s clearly inefficient and regressive but it’s politically popular and dropping it suddenly could lead to another crisis in housing prices.

Stiglitz has a deorbit for anyone who thinks capital income should not be taxed:

“There is, moreover, no justification for taxing those who work hard to earn a living at a higher rate than those who derive their income from speculation.”

By equalizing rates on labor and capital income, he estimates we could raise an additional $130 billion per year—just shy of what it would take to end world hunger. (Actually some estimates say it would be more than enough, others that it would be about half what we need. It’s definitely in the ballpark, however.)

Stiglitz actually proposes making a full deduction of gross household income at $100,000, meaning that the vast majority of Americans would pay no income tax at all. This is where he begins to lose me, because it necessarily means we aren’t going to raise enough revenue by income taxes alone.

He proposes to make up the shortfall by introducing a value-added tax, a VAT. I have to admit a lot of countries have these (including most of Europe) and seem to do all right with them; but I never understood why they are so popular among economists. They are basically sales taxes, and it’s very hard to make any kind of sales tax meaningfully progressive. In fact, they are typically regressive, because rich people spend a smaller proportion of their income than poor people do. Unless we specifically want to disincentivize buying things (and a depression is not the time to do that!), I don’t see why we would want to switch to a sales tax.

At the end of the paper Stiglitz talks about the vital difference between short-term spending cuts and long-term fiscal sustainability:

“Thus, policies that promote output and employment today also contribute to future growth – particularly if they lead to more investment. Thus, austerity measures that take the form of cutbacks in spending on infrastructure, technology, or education not only weaken the economy today, but weaken it in the future, both directly (through the obvious impacts, for example, on the capital stock) but also indirectly, through the diminution in human capital that arises out of employment or educational experience. […] Mindless “deficit fetishism” is likely to be counterproductive. It will weaken the economy and prove counterproductive to raising revenues because the main reason that we are in our current fiscal position is the weak economy.”

It amazes me how many people fail to grasp this. No one would say that paying for college is fiscally irresponsible, because we know that all that student debt will be repaid by your increased productivity and income later on; yet somehow people still think that government subsidies for education are fiscally irresponsible. No one would say that it is a waste of money for a research lab to buy new equipment in order to have a better chance at making new discoveries, yet somehow people still think it is a waste of money for the government to fund research. The most legitimate form of this argument is “crowding-out”, the notion that the increased government spending will be matched by an equal or greater decrease in private spending; but the evidence shows that many public goods—like education, research, and infrastructure—are currently underfunded, and if there is any crowding-out, it is much smaller than the gain produced by the government investment. Crowding-out is theoretically possible but empirically rare.

Above all, now is not the time to fret about deficits. Now is the time to fret about unemployment. We need to get more people working; we need to create jobs for those who are already seeking them, better jobs for those who have them but want more, and opportunities for people who have given up searching for work to keep trying. To do that, we need spending, and we will probably need deficits. That’s all right; once the economy is restored to full capacity then we can adjust our spending to balance the budget (or we may not even need to, if we devise taxes correctly).

Of course, I fear that most of these policies will fall upon deaf ears; but Stiglitz calls us to action:

“We can reform our tax system in ways that will strengthen the economy today, address current economic and social problems, and strengthen our economy for the future. The economic agenda is clear. The question is, will the vested interests which have played such a large role in creating the current distorted system continue to prevail? Do we have the political will to create a tax system that is fair and serves the interests of all Americans?”