How Reagan ruined America

JDN 2457408

Or maybe it’s Ford?

The title is intentionally hyperbolic; despite the best efforts of Reagan and his ilk, America does yet survive. Indeed, as Obama aptly pointed out in his recent State of the Union, we appear to be on an upward trajectory once more. And as you’ll see in a moment, many of the turning points actually seem to be Gerald Ford, though it was under Reagan that the trends really gained steam.

But I think it’s quite remarkable just how much damage Reaganomics did to the economy and society of the United States. It’s actually a turning point in all sorts of different economic policy measures; things were going well from the 1940s to the 1970s, and then suddenly in the 1980s they take a turn for the worse.

The clearest example is inequality. From the World Top Incomes Database, here’s the graph I featured on my Patreon page of income shares in the United States:

top_income_shares_pretty.png

Inequality was really bad during the Roaring Twenties (no surprise to anyone who has read The Great Gatsby), then after the turmoil of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War 2, inequality was reduced to a much lower level.

During this period, what I like to call the Golden Age of American Capitalism:

Instead of almost 50% in the 1920s, the top 10% now received about 33%.

Instead of over 20% in the 1920s, the top 1% now received about 10%.

Instead of almost 5% in the 1920s, the top 0.01% now received about 1%.

This pattern continued to hold, remarkably stable, until 1980. Then, it completely unraveled. Income shares of the top brackets rose, and continued to rise, ever since (fluctuating with the stock market of course). Now, we’re basically back right where we were in the 1920s; the top 10% gets 50%, the top 1% gets 20%, and the top 0.01% gets 4%.

Not coincidentally, we see the same pattern if we look at the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay, as shown here in a graph from the Economic Policy Institute:

Snapshot_CEO_pay_main

Up until 1980, the ratio in pay between CEOs and their average workers was steady around 20 to 1. From that point forward, it began to rise—and rise, and rise. It continued to rise under every Presidential administration, and actually hit its peak in 2000, under Bill Clinton, at an astonishing 411 to 1 ratio. In the 2000s it fell to about 250 to 1 (hurray?), and has slightly declined since then to about 230 to 1.

By either measure, we can see a clear turning point in US inequality—it was low and stable, until Reagan came along, when it began to explode.

Part of this no doubt is the sudden shift in tax rates. The top marginal tax rates on income were over 90% from WW2 to the 1960s; then JFK reduced them to 70%, which is probably close to the revenue-maximizing rate. There they stayed, until—you know the refrain—along came Reagan, and by the end of his administration he had dropped the top marginal rate to 28%. It then was brought back up to about 35%, where it has basically remained, sometimes getting as high as 40%.

US_income_tax_rates

Another striking example is the ratio between worker productivity and wages. The Economic Policy Institute has a very detailed analysis of this, but I think their graph by itself is quite striking:

productivity_wages

Starting around the 1970s, and then rapidly accelerating from the 1980s onward, we see a decoupling of productivity from wages. Productivity has continued to rise at more or less the same rate, but wages flatten out completely, even falling for part of the period.

For those who still somehow think Republicans are fiscally conservative, take a look at this graph of the US national debt:

US_federal_debt

We were at a comfortable 30-40% of GDP range, actually slowly decreasing—until Reagan. We got back on track to reduce the debt during the mid-1990s—under Bill Clinton—and then went back to raising it again once George W. Bush got in office. It ballooned as a result of the Great Recession, and for the past few years Obama has been trying to bring it back under control.

Of course, national debt is not nearly as bad as most people imagine it to be. If Reagan had only raised the national debt in order to stop unemployment, that would have been fine—but he did not.

Unemployment had never been above 10% since World War 2 (and in fact reached below 4% in the 1960s!) and yet all the sudden hit almost 11%, shortly after Reagan:
US_unemployment
Let’s look at that graph a little closer. Right now the Federal Reserve uses 5% as their target unemployment rate, the supposed “natural rate of unemployment” (a lot of economists use this notion, despite there being almost no empirical support for it whatsoever). If I draw red lines at 5% unemployment and at 1981, the year Reagan took office, look at what happens.

US_unemployment_annotated

For most of the period before 1981, we spent most of our time below the 5% line, jumping above it during recessions and then coming back down; for most of the period after 1981, we spent most of our time above the 5% line, even during economic booms.

I’ve drawn another line (green) where the most natural break appears, and it actually seems to be the Ford administration; so maybe I can’t just blame Reagan. But something happened in the last quarter of the 20th century that dramatically changed the shape of unemployment in America.

Inflation is at least ambiguous; it was pretty bad in the 1940s and 1950s, and then settled down in the 1960s for awhile before picking up in the 1970s, and actually hit its worst just before Reagan took office:

US_inflation

Then there’s GDP growth.

US_GDP_growth

After World War 2, our growth rate was quite volatile, rising as high as 8% (!) in some years, but sometimes falling to zero or slightly negative. Rates over 6% were common during booms. On average GDP growth was quite good, around 4% per year.

In 1981—the year Reagan took office—we had the worst growth rate in postwar history, an awful -1.9%. Coming out of that recession we had very high growth of about 7%, but then settled into the new normal: More stable growth rates, yes, but also much lower. Never again did our growth rate exceed 4%, and on average it was more like 2%. In 2009, Reagan’s record recession was broken with the Great Recession, a drop of almost 3% in a single year.

GDP per capita tells a similar story, of volatile but fast growth before Reagan followed by stable but slow growth thereafter:

US_GDP_per_capita

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to blame Reagan for all of this. A lot of things have happened in the late 20th century, after all. In particular, the OPEC oil crisis is probably responsible for many of these 1970s shocks, and when Nixon moved us at last off the Bretton Woods gold standard, it was probably the right decision, but done at a moment of crisis instead of as the result of careful planning.

Also, while the classical gold standard was terrible, the Bretton Woods system actually had some things to recommend it. It required strict capital controls and currency exchange regulations, but the period of highest economic growth and lowest inequality in the United States—the period I’m calling the Golden Age of American Capitalism—was in fact the same period as the Bretton Woods system.

Some of these trends started before Reagan, and all of them continued in his absence—many of them worsening as much or more under Clinton. Reagan took office during a terrible recession, and either contributed to the recovery or at least did not prevent it.

The President only has very limited control over the economy in any case; he can set a policy agenda, but Congress must actually implement it, and policy can take years to show its true effects. Yet given Reagan’s agenda of cutting top tax rates, crushing unions, and generally giving large corporations whatever they want, I think he bears at least some responsibility for turning our economy in this very bad direction.

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?”

Externalities

JDN 2457202 EDT 17:52.

The 1992 Bill Clinton campaign had a slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”: A snowclone I’ve used on occasion is “it’s the externalities, stupid.” (Though I’m actually not all that fond of calling people ‘stupid’; though occasionally true is it never polite and rarely useful.) Externalities are one of the most important concepts in economics, and yet one that even all too many economists frequently neglect.

Fortunately for this one, I really don’t need much math; the concept isn’t even that complicated, which makes it all the more mysterious how frequently it is ignored. An externality is simply an effect that an action has upon those who were not involved in choosing to perform that action.

All sorts of actions have externalities; indeed, much rarer are actions that don’t. An obvious example is that punching someone in the face has the externality of injuring that person. Pollution is an important externality of many forms of production, because the people harmed by pollution are typically not the same people who were responsible for creating it. Traffic jams are created because every car on the road causes a congestion externality on all the other cars.

All the aforementioned are negative externalities, but there are also positive externalities. When one individual becomes educated, they tend to improve the overall economic viability of the place in which they live. Building infrastructure benefits whole communities. New scientific discoveries enhance the well-being of all humanity.

Externalities are a fundamental problem for the functioning of markets. In the absence of externalities—if each person’s actions only affected that one person and nobody else—then rational self-interest would be optimal and anything else would make no sense. In arguing that rationality is equivalent to self-interest, generations of economists have been, tacitly or explicitly, assuming that there are no such things as externalities.

This is a necessary assumption to show that self-interest would lead to something I discussed in an earlier post: Pareto-efficiency, in which the only way to make one person better off is to make someone else worse off. As I already talked about in that other post, Pareto-efficiency is wildly overrated; a wide variety of Pareto-efficient systems would be intolerable to actually live in. But in the presence of externalities, markets can’t even guarantee Pareto-efficiency, because it’s possible to have everyone acting in their rational self-interest cause harm to everyone at once.

This is called a tragedy of the commons; the basic idea is really quite simple. Suppose that when I burn a gallon of gasoline, that makes me gain 5 milliQALY by driving my car, but then makes everyone lose 1 milliQALY in increased pollution. On net, I gain 4 milliQALY, so if I am rational and self-interested I would do that. But now suppose that there are 10 people all given the same choice. If we all make that same choice, each of us will gain 1 milliQALY—and then lose 10 milliQALY. We would all have been better off if none of us had done it, even though it made sense to each of us at the time. Burning a gallon of gasoline to drive my car is beneficial to me, more so than the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is harmful; but as a result of millions of people burning gasoline, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is destabilizing our planet’s climate. We’d all be better off if we could find some way to burn less gasoline.

In order for rational self-interest to be optimal, externalities have to somehow be removed from the system. Otherwise, there are actions we can take that benefit ourselves but harm other people—and thus, we would all be better off if we acted to some degree altruistically. (When I say things like this, most non-economists think I am saying something trivial and obvious, while most economists insist that I am making an assertion that is radical if not outright absurd.)

But of course a world without externalities is a world of complete isolation; it’s a world where everyone lives on their own deserted island and there is no way of communicating or interacting with any other human being in the world. The only reasonable question about this world is whether we would die first or go completely insane first; clearly those are the two things that would happen. Human beings are fundamentally social animals—I would argue that we are in fact more social even than eusocial animals like ants and bees. (Ants and bees are only altruistic toward their own kin; humans are altruistic to groups of millions of people we’ve never even met.) Humans without social interaction are like flowers without sunlight.

Indeed, externalities are so common that if markets only worked in their absence, markets would make no sense at all. Fortunately this isn’t true; there are some ways that markets can be adjusted to deal with at least some kinds of externalities.

One of the most well-known is the Coase theorem; this is odd because it is by far the worst solution. The Coase theorem basically says that if you can assign and enforce well-defined property rights and there is absolutely no cost in making any transaction, markets will automatically work out all externalities. The basic idea is that if someone is about to perform an action that would harm you, you can instead pay them not to do it. Then, the harm to you will be prevented and they will incur an additional benefit.

In the above example, we could all agree to pay $30 (which let’s say is worth 1 milliQALY) to each person who doesn’t burn a gallon of gasoline that would pollute our air. Then, if I were thinking about burning some gasoline, I wouldn’t want to do it, because I’d lose the $300 in payments, which costs me 10 milliQALY, while the benefits of burning the gasoline are only 5 milliQALY. We all reason the same way, and the result is that nobody burns gasoline and actually the money exchanged all balances out so we end up where we were before. The result is that we are all better off.

The first thought you probably have is: How do I pay everyone who doesn’t hurt me? How do I even find all those people? How do I ensure that they follow through and actually don’t hurt me? These are the problems of transaction costs and contract enforcement that are usually presented as the problem with the Coase theorem, and they certainly are very serious problems. You end up needing some sort of government simply to enforce all those contracts, and even then there’s the question of how we can possibly locate everyone who has ever polluted our air or our water.

But in fact there’s an even more fundamental problem: This is extortion. We are almost always in the condition of being able to harm other people, and a system in which the reason people don’t hurt each other is because they’re constantly paying each other not to is a system in which the most intimidating psychopath is the wealthiest person in the world. That system is in fact Pareto-efficient (the psychopath does quite well for himself indeed); but it’s exactly the sort of Pareto-efficient system that isn’t worth pursuing.

Another response to externalities is simply to accept them, which isn’t as awful as it sounds. There are many kinds of externalities that really aren’t that bad, and anything we might do to prevent them is likely to make the cure worse than the disease. Think about the externality of people standing in front of you in line, or the externality of people buying the last cereal box off the shelf before you can get there. The externality of taking the job you applied for may hurt at the time, but in the long run that’s how we maintain a thriving and competitive labor market. In fact, even the externality of ‘gentrifying’ your neighborhood so you can no longer afford it is not nearly as bad as most people seem to think—indeed, the much larger problem seems to be the poor neighborhoods that don’t have rising incomes, remaining poor for generations. (It also makes no sense to call this “gentrifying”; the only landed gentry we have in America is the landowners who claim a ludicrous proportion of our wealth, not the middle-class people who buy cheap homes and move in. If you really want to talk about a gentry, you should be thinking Waltons and Kochs—or Bushs and Clintons.) These sorts of minor externalities that are better left alone are sometimes characterized as pecuniary externalities because they usually are linked to prices, but I think that really misses the point; it’s quite possible for an externality to be entirely price-related and do enormous damage (read: the entire financial system) and to have little or nothing to do with prices and still be not that bad (like standing in line as I mentioned above).

But obviously we can’t leave all externalities alone in this way. We can’t just let people rob and murder one another arbitrarily, or ignore the destruction of the world’s climate that threatens hundreds of millions of lives. We can’t stand back and let forests burn and rivers run dry when we could easily have saved them.

The much more reasonable and realistic response to externalities is what we call government—there are rules you have to follow in society and punishments you face if you don’t. We can avoid most of the transaction problems involved in figuring out who polluted our water by simply making strict rules about polluting water in general. We can prevent people from stealing each other’s things or murdering each other by police who will investigate and punish such crimes.

This is why regulation—and a government strong enough to enforce that regulation—is necessary for the functioning of a society. This dichotomy we have been sold about “regulations versus the market” is totally nonsensical; the market depends upon regulations. This doesn’t justify any particular regulation—and indeed, an awful lot of regulations are astonshingly bad. But some sort of regulatory system is necessary for a market to function at all, and the question has never been whether we will have regulations but which regulations we will have. People who argue that all regulations must go and the market would somehow work on its own are either deeply ignorant of economics or operating from an ulterior motive; some truly horrendous policies have been made by arguing that “less government is always better” when the truth is nothing of the sort.

In fact, there is one real-world method I can think of that actually comes reasonably close to eliminating all externalities—and it is called social democracy. By involving everyone—democracy—in a system that regulates the economy—socialism—we can, in a sense, involve everyone in every transaction, and thus make it impossible to have externalities. In practice it’s never that simple, of course; but the basic concept of involving our whole society in making the rules that our society will follow is sound—and in fact I can think of no reasonable alternative.

We have to institute some sort of regulatory system, but then we need to decide what the regulations will be and who will control them. If we want to instead vest power in a technocratic elite, how do you decide whom to include in that elite? How do we ensure that the technocrats are actually better for the general population if there is no way for that general population to have a say in their election? By involving as many people as we can in the decision-making process, we make it much less likely that one person’s selfish action will harm many others. Indeed, this is probably why democracy prevents famine and genocide—which are, after all, rather extreme examples of negative externalities.