How is the economy doing?

JDN 2457033 EST 12:22.

Whenever you introduce yourself to someone as an economist, you will typically be asked a single question: “How is the economy doing?” I’ve already experienced this myself, and I don’t have very many dinner parties under my belt.

It’s an odd question, for a couple of reasons: First, I didn’t say I was a macroeconomic forecaster. That’s a very small branch of economics—even a small branch of macroeconomics. Second, it is widely recognized among economists that our forecasters just aren’t very good at what they do. But it is the sort of thing that pops into people’s minds when they hear the word “economist”, so we get asked it a lot.

Why are our forecasts so bad? Some argue that the task is just inherently too difficult due to the chaotic system involved; but they used to say that about weather forecasts, and yet with satellites and computer models our forecasts are now far more accurate than they were 20 years ago. Others have argued that “politics always dominates over economics”, as though politics were somehow a fundamentally separate thing, forever exogenous, a parameter in our models that cannot be predicted. I have a number of economic aphorisms I’m trying to popularize; the one for this occasion is: “Nothing is exogenous.” (Maybe fundamental constants of physics? But actually many physicists think that those constants can be derived from even more fundamental laws.) My most common is “It’s the externalities, stupid.”; next is “It’s not the incentives, it’s the opportunities.”; and the last is “Human beings are 90% rational. But woe betide that other 10%.” In fact, it’s not quite true that all our macroeconomic forecasters are bad; a few, such as Krugman, are actually quite good. The Klein Award is given each year to the best macroeconomic forecasters, and the same names pop up too often for it to be completely random. (Sadly, one of the most common is Citigroup, meaning that our banksters know perfectly well what they’re doing when they destroy our economy—they just don’t care.) So in fact I think our failures of forecasting are not inevitable or permanent.

And of course that’s not what I do at all. I am a cognitive economist; I study how economic systems behave when they are run by actual human beings, rather than by infinite identical psychopaths. I’m particularly interested in what I call the tribal paradigm, the way that people identify with groups and act in the interests of those groups, how much solidarity people feel for each other and why, and what role ideology plays in that identification. I’m hoping to one day formally model solidarity and make directly testable predictions about things like charitable donations, immigration policies and disaster responses.

I do have a more macroeconomic bent than most other cognitive economists; I’m not just interested in how human irrationality affects individuals or corporations, I’m also interested in how it affects society as a whole. But unlike most macroeconomists I care more about inequality than unemployment, and hardly at all about inflation. Unless you start getting 40% inflation per year, inflation really isn’t that harmful—and can you imagine what 40% unemployment would be like? (Also, while 100% inflation is awful, 100% unemployment would be no economy at all.) If we’re going to have a “misery index“, it should weight unemployment at least 10 times as much as inflation—and it should also include terms for poverty and inequality. Frankly maybe we should just use poverty, since I’d be prepared to accept just about any level of inflation, unemployment, or even inequality if it meant eliminating poverty. This is of course is yet another reason why a basic income is so great! An anti-poverty measure can really only be called a failure if it doesn’t actually reduce poverty; the only way that could happen with a basic income is if it somehow completely destabilized the economy, which is extremely unlikely as long as the basic income isn’t something ridiculous like $100,000 per year.

I could probably talk about my master’s thesis; the econometric models are relatively arcane, but the basic idea of correlating the income concentration of the top 1% of 1% and the level of corruption is something most people can grasp easily enough.

Of course, that wouldn’t be much of an answer to “How is the economy doing?”; usually my answer is to repeat what I’ve last read from mainstream macroeconomic forecasts, which is usually rather banal—but maybe that’s the idea? Most small talk is pretty banal I suppose (I never was very good at that sort of thing). It sounds a bit like this: No, we’re not on the verge of horrible inflation—actually inflation is currently too low. (At this point someone will probably bring up the gold standard, and I’ll have to explain that the gold standard is an unequivocally terrible idea on so, so many levels. The gold standard caused the Great Depression.) Unemployment is gradually improving, and actually job growth is looking pretty good right now; but wages are still stagnant, which is probably what’s holding down inflation. We could have prevented the Second Depression entirely, but we didn’t because Republicans are terrible at managing the economy—all of the 10 most recent recessions and almost 80% of the recessions in the last century were under Republican presidents. Instead the Democrats did their best to implement basic principles of Keynesian macroeconomics despite Republican intransigence, and we muddled through. In another year or two we will actually be back at an unemployment rate of 5%, which the Federal Reserve considers “full employment”. That’s already problematic—what about that other 5%?—but there’s another problem as well: Much of our reduction in unemployment has come not from more people being employed but instead by more people dropping out of the labor force. Our labor force participation rate is the lowest it’s been since 1978, and is still trending downward. Most of these people aren’t getting jobs; they’re giving up. At best we may hope that they are people like me, who gave up on finding work in order to invest in their own education, and will return to the labor force more knowledgeable and productive one day—and indeed, college participation rates are also rising rapidly. And no, that doesn’t mean we’re becoming “overeducated”; investment in education, so-called “human capital”, is literally the single most important factor in long-term economic output, by far. Education is why we’re not still in the Stone Age. Physical capital can be replaced, and educated people will do so efficiently. But all the physical capital in the world will do you no good if nobody knows how to use it. When everyone in the world is a millionaire with two PhDs and all our work is done by robots, maybe then you can say we’re “overeducated”—and maybe then you’d still be wrong. Being “too educated” is like being “too rich” or “too happy”.

That’s usually enough to placate my interlocutor. I should probably count my blessings, for I imagine that the first confrontation you get at a dinner party if you say you are a biologist involves a Creationist demanding that you “prove evolution”. I like to think that some mathematical biologists—yes, that’s a thing—take their request literally and set out to mathematically prove that if allele distributions in a population change according to a stochastic trend then the alleles with highest expected fitness have, on average, the highest fitness—which is what we really mean by “survival of the fittest”. The more formal, the better; the goal is to glaze some Creationist eyes. Of course that’s a tautology—but so is literally anything that you can actually prove. Cosmologists probably get similar demands to “prove the Big Bang”, which sounds about as annoying. I may have to deal with gold bugs, but I’ll take them over Creationists any day.

What do other scientists get? When I tell people I am a cognitive scientist (as a cognitive economist I am sort of both an economist and a cognitive scientist after all), they usually just respond with something like “Wow, you must be really smart.”; which I suppose is true enough, but always strikes me as an odd response. I think they just didn’t know enough about the field to even generate a reasonable-sounding question, whereas with economists they always have “How is the economy doing?” handy. Political scientists probably get “Who is going to win the election?” for the same reason. People have opinions about economics, but they don’t have opinions about cognitive science—or rather, they don’t think they do. Actually most people have an opinion about cognitive science that is totally and utterly ridiculous, more on a par with Creationists than gold bugs: That is, most people believe in a soul that survives after death. This is rather like believing that after your computer has been smashed to pieces and ground back into the sand from whence it came, all the files you had on it are still out there somewhere, waiting to be retrieved. No, they’re long gone—and likewise your memories and your personality will be long gone once your brain has rotted away. Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots; when the tiny robots stop working the soul is no more. Everything you are is a result of the functioning of your brain. This does not mean that your feelings are not real or do not matter; they are just as real and important as you thought they were. What it means is that when a person’s brain is destroyed, that person is destroyed, permanently and irrevocably. This is terrifying and difficult to accept; but it is also most definitely true. It is as solid a fact as any in modern science. Many people see a conflict between evolution and religion; but the Pope has long since rendered that one inert. No, the real conflict, the basic fact that undermines everything religion is based upon, is not in biology but in cognitive science. It is indeed the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science: We are our brains, no more and no less. (But I suppose it wouldn’t be polite to bring that up at dinner parties.)

The “You must be really smart.” response is probably what happens to physicists and mathematicians. Quantum mechanics confuses basically everyone, so few dare go near it. The truly bold might try to bring up Schrodinger’s Cat, but are unlikely to understand the explanation of why it doesn’t work. General relativity requires thinking in tensors and four-dimensional spaces—perhaps they’ll be asked the question “What’s inside a black hole?”, which of course no physicist can really answer; the best answer may actually be, “What do you mean, inside?” And if a mathematician tries to explain their work in lay terms, it usually comes off as either incomprehensible or ridiculous: Stokes’ Theorem would be either “the integral of a differential form over the boundary of some orientable manifold is equal to the integral of its exterior derivative over the whole manifold” or else something like “The swirliness added up inside an object is equal to the swirliness added up around the edges.”

Economists, however, always seem to get this one: “How is the economy doing?”

Right now, the answer is this: “It’s still pretty bad, but it’s getting a lot better. Hopefully the new Congress won’t screw that up.”

The moral—and economic—case for progressive taxation

JDN 2456935 PDT 09:44.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways a tax system can be arranged: It can be flat, in which every person pays the same tax rate; it can be regressive, in which people with higher incomes pay lower rates; or it can be progressive, in which case people with higher incomes pay higher rates.

There are certain benefits to a flat tax: Above all, it’s extremely easy to calculate. It’s easy to determine how much revenue a given tax rate will raise; multiply the rate times your GDP. It’s also easy to determine how much a given person should owe; multiply the rate times their income. This also makes the tax withholding process much easier; a fixed proportion can be withheld from all income everyone makes without worrying about how much they made before or are expected to make later. If your goal is minimal bureaucracy, a flat tax does have something to be said for it.

A regressive tax, on the other hand, is just as complicated as a progressive tax but has none of the benefits. It’s unfair because you’re actually taking more from people who can afford the least. (Note that this is true even if the rich actually pay a higher total; the key point, which I will explain in detail shortly, is that a dollar is worth more to you if you don’t have very many.) There is basically no reason you would ever want to have a regressive tax system—and yet, all US states have regressive tax systems. This is mainly because they rely upon sales taxes, which are regressive because rich people spend a smaller portion of what they have. If you make $10,000 per year, you probably spend $9,500 (you may even spend $15,000 and rack up the difference in debt!). If you make $50,000, you probably spend $40,000. But if you make $10 million, you probably only spend $4 million. Since sales taxes only tax on what you spend, the rich effectively pay a lower rate. This could be corrected to some extent by raising the sales tax on luxury goods—say a 20% rate on wine and a 50% rate on yachts—but this is awkward and very few states even try. Not even my beloved California; they fear drawing the ire of wineries and Silicon Valley.

The best option is to make the tax system progressive. Thomas Piketty has been called a “Communist” for favoring strongly progressive taxation, but in fact most Americans—including Republicans—agree that our tax system should be progressive. (Most Americans also favor cutting the Department of Defense rather than Medicare. This then raises the question: Why isn’t Congress doing that? Why aren’t people voting in representatives to Congress who will do that?) Most people judge whether taxes are fair based on what they themselves pay—which is why, in surveys, the marginal rate on the top 1% is basically unrelated to whether people think taxes are too high, even though that one bracket is the critical decision in deciding any tax system—you can raise about 20% of your revenue by hurting about 1% of your people. In a typical sample of 1,000 respondents, only about 10 are in the top 1%. If you want to run for Congress, the implication is clear: Cut taxes on all but the top 1%, raise them enormously on the top 0.1%, 0.01%, and 0.001%, and leave the 1% the same. People will feel that you’ve made the taxes more fair, and you’ve also raised more revenue. In other words, make the tax system more progressive.

The good news on this front is that the US federal tax system is progressive—barely. Actually the US tax system is especially progressive over the whole distribution—by some measures the most progressive in the world—but the problem is that it’s not nearly progressive enough at the very top, where the real money is. The usual measure based on our Gini coefficient ignores the fact that Warren Buffett pays a lower rate than his secretary. The Gini is based on population, and billionaires are a tiny portion of the population—but they are not a tiny portion of the money. Net wealth of the 400 richest people (the top 0.0001%) adds up to about $2 trillion (13% of our $15 trillion GDP, or about 4% of our $54 trillion net wealth). It also matters of course how you spend your tax revenue; even though Sweden’s tax system is no more progressive than ours and their pre-tax inequality is about the same, their spending is much more targeted at reducing inequality.

Progressive taxation is inherently more fair, because the value of a dollar decreases the more you have. We call this diminishing marginal utility of wealth. There is a debate within the cognitive economics literature about just how quickly the marginal utility of wealth decreases. On the low end, Easterlin argues that it drops off extremely fast, becoming almost negligible as low as $75,000 per year. This paper is on the high end, arguing that marginal utility decreases “only” as the logarithm of how much you have. That’s what I’ll use in this post, because it’s the most conservative reasonable estimate. I actually think the truth is somewhere in between, with marginal utility decreasing about exponentially.

Logarithms are also really easy to work with, once you get used to them. So let’s say that the amount of happiness (utility) U you get from an amount of income I is like this: U = ln(I)

Now let’s suppose the IRS comes along and taxes your money at a rate r. We must have r < 1, or otherwise they’re trying to take money you don’t have. We don’t need to have r > 0; r < 0 would just mean that you receive more in transfers than you lose in taxes. For the poor we should have r < 0.

Now your happiness is U = ln((1-r)I).

By the magic of logarithms, this is U = ln(I) + ln(1-r).

If r is between 0 and 1, ln(1-r) is negative and you’re losing happiness. (If r < 0, you’re gaining happiness.) The amount of happiness you lose, ln(1-r), is independent of your income. So if your goal is to take a fixed amount of happiness, you should tax at a fixed rate of income—a flat tax.

But that really isn’t fair, is it? If I’m getting 100 utilons of happiness from my money and you’re only getting 2 utilons from your money, then taking that 1 utilon, while it hurts the same—that’s the whole point of utility—leaves you an awful lot worse off than I. It actually makes the ratio between us worse, going from 50 to 1, all the way up to 99 to 1.

Notice how if we had a regressive tax, it would be obviously unfair—we’d actually take more utility from poor people than rich people. I have 100 utilons, you have 2 utilons; the taxes take 1.5 of yours but only 0.5 of mine. That seems frankly outrageous; but it’s what all US states have.

Most of the money you have is ultimately dependent on your society. Let’s say you own a business and made your wealth selling products; it seems like you deserve to have that wealth, doesn’t it? (Don’t get me started on people who inherited their wealth!) Well, in order to do that, you need to have strong institutions of civil government; you need security against invasion; you need protection of property rights and control of crime; you need a customer base who can afford your products (that’s our problem in the Second Depression); you need workers who are healthy and skilled; you need a financial system that provides reliable credit (also a problem). I’m having trouble finding any good research on exactly what proportion of individual wealth is dependent upon the surrounding society, but let’s just say Bill Gates wouldn’t be spending billions fighting malaria in villages in Ghana if he had been born in a village in Ghana. It doesn’t matter how brilliant or determined or hard-working you are, if you live in a society that can’t support economic activity.

In other words, society is giving you a lot of happiness you wouldn’t otherwise have. Because of this, it makes sense that in order to pay for all that stuff society is doing for you (and maintain a stable monetary system), they would tax you according to how much happiness they’re giving you. Hence we shouldn’t tax your money at a constant rate; we should tax your utility at a constant rate and then convert back to money. This defines a new sort of “tax rate” which I’ll call p. Like our tax rate r, p needs to be less than 1, but it doesn’t need to be greater than 0.

Of the U = ln(I) utility you get from your money, you will get to keep U = (1-p) ln(I). Say it’s 10%; then if I have 100 utilons, they take 10 utilons and leave me with 90. If you have 2 utilons, they take 0.2 and leave you with 1.8. The ratio between us remains the same: 50 to 1.

What does this mean for the actual tax rate? It has to be progressive. Very progressive, as a matter of fact. And in particular, progressive all the way up—there is no maximum tax bracket.

The amount of money you had before is just I.

The amount of money you have now can be found as the amount of money I’ that gives you the right amount of utility. U = ln(I’) = (1-p) ln(I). Take the exponential of both sides: I’ = I^(1-p).

The units on this are a bit weird, “dollars to the 0.8 power”? Oddly, this rarely seems to bother economists when they use Cobb-Douglas functions which are like K^(1/3) L^(2/3). It bothers me though; to really make this tax system in practice you’d need to fix the units of measurement, probably using some subsistence level. Say that’s set at $10,000; instead of saying you make $2 million, we’d say you make 200 subsistence levels.

The tax rate you pay is then r = 1 – I’/I, which is r = 1 – I^-p. As I increases, I^-p decreases, so r gets closer and closer to 1. It never actually hits 1 (that would be a 100% tax rate, which hardly anyone thinks is fair), but for very large income is does get quite close.

Here, let’s use some actual numbers. Suppose as I said we make the subsistence level $10,000. Let’s also set p = 0.1, meaning we tax 10% of your utility. Then, if you make the US median individual income, that’s about $30,000 which would be I = 3. US per-capita GDP of $55,000 would be I = 5.5, and so on. I’ll ignore incomes below the subsistence level for now—basically what you want to do there is establish a basic income so that nobody is below the subsistence level.

I made a table of tax rates and after-tax incomes that would result:

Pre-tax income Tax rate After-tax income
$10,000 0.0% $10,000
$20,000 6.7% $18,661
$30,000 10.4% $26,879
$40,000 12.9% $34,822
$50,000 14.9% $42,567
$60,000 16.4% $50,158
$70,000 17.7% $57,622
$80,000 18.8% $64,980
$90,000 19.7% $72,247
$100,000 20.6% $79,433
$1,000,000 36.9% $630,957
$10,000,000 49.9% $5,011,872
$100,000,000 60.2% $39,810,717
$1,000,000,000 68.4% $316,227,766

What if that’s not enough revenue? We could raise to p = 0.2:

Pre-tax income Tax rate After-tax income
$10,000 0.0% $10,000
$20,000 12.9% $17,411
$30,000 19.7% $24,082
$40,000 24.2% $30,314
$50,000 27.5% $36,239
$60,000 30.1% $41,930
$70,000 32.2% $47,433
$80,000 34.0% $52,780
$90,000 35.6% $57,995
$100,000 36.9% $63,096
$1,000,000 60.2% $398,107
$10,000,000 74.9% $2,511,886
$100,000,000 84.2% $15,848,932
$1,000,000,000 90.0% $100,000,000

The richest 400 people in the US have a combined net wealth of about $2.2 trillion. If we assume that billionaires make about a 10% return on their net wealth, this 90% rate would raise over $200 billion just from those 400 billionaires alone, enough to pay all interest on the national debt. Let me say that again: This tax system would raise enough money from a group of people who could fit in a large lecture hall to provide for servicing the national debt. And it could do so indefinitely, because we are only taxing the interest, not the principal.

And what if that’s still not enough? We could raise it even further, to p = 0.3. Now the tax rates look a bit high for most people, but not absurdly so—and notice how the person at the poverty line is still paying nothing, as it should be. The millionaire is unhappy with 75%, but the billionaire is really unhappy with his 97% rate. But the government now has plenty of money.

Pre-tax income Tax rate After-tax income
$10,000 0.0% $10,000
$20,000 18.8% $16,245
$30,000 28.1% $21,577
$40,000 34.0% $26,390
$50,000 38.3% $30,852
$60,000 41.6% $35,051
$70,000 44.2% $39,045
$80,000 46.4% $42,871
$90,000 48.3% $46,555
$100,000 49.9% $50,119
$1,000,000 74.9% $251,189
$10,000,000 87.4% $1,258,925
$100,000,000 93.7% $6,309,573
$1,000,000,000 96.8% $31,622,777

Is it fair to tax the super-rich at such extreme rates? Well, why wouldn’t it be? They are living fabulously well, and most of their opportunity to do so is dependent upon living in our society. It’s actually not at all unreasonable to think that over 97% of the wealth a billionaire has is dependent upon society in this way—indeed, I think it’s unreasonable to imagine that it’s any less than 99.9%. If you say that the portion a billionaire receives from society is less than 99.9%, you are claiming that it is possible to become a millionaire while living on a desert island. (Remember, 0.1% of $1 billion is $1 million.) Forget the money system; do you really think that anything remotely like a millionaire standard of living is possible from catching your own fish and cutting down your own trees?Another fun fact is that this tax system will not change the ordering of income at all. If you were the 37,824th richest person yesterday, you will be the 37,824th richest person today; you’ll just have a lot less money while you do so. And if you were the 300,120,916th richest person, you’ll still be the 300,120,916th person, and probably still have the same amount of money you did before (or even more, if the basic income is doled out on tax day).

And these figures, remember, are based on a conservative estimate of how quickly the marginal utility of wealth decreases. I’m actually pretty well convinced that it’s much faster than that, in which case even these tax rates may not be progressive enough.

Many economists worry that taxes reduce the incentive to work. If you are taxed at 30%, that’s like having a wage that’s 30% lower. It’s not hard to imagine why someone might not work as much if they were being paid 30% less.

But there are actually two effects here. One is the substitution effect: a higher wage gives you more reason to work. The other is the income effect: having more money means that you can meet your needs without working as much.

For low incomes, the substitution effect dominates; if your pay rises from $12,000 a year to $15,000, you’re probably going to work more, because you get paid more to work and you’re still hardly wealthy enough to rest on your laurels.

For moderate incomes, the effects actually balance quite well; people who make $40,000 work about the same number of hours as people who make $50,000.

For high incomes, the income effect dominates; if your pay rises from $300,000 to $400,000, you’re probably going to work less, because you can pay all your bills while putting in less work.

So if you want to maximize work incentives, what should you do? You want to raise the wages of poor people and lower the wages of rich people. In other words, you want very low—or negative—taxes on the lower brackets, and very high taxes on the upper brackets. If you’re genuinely worried about taxes distorting incentives to work, you should be absolutely in favor of progressive taxation.

In conclusion: Because money is worth less to you the more of it you have, in order to take a fixed proportion of the happiness, we should be taking an increasing proportion of the money. In order to be fair in terms of real utility, taxes should be progressive. And this would actually increase work incentives.

Pareto Efficiency: Why we need it—and why it’s not enough

JDN 2456914 PDT 11:45.

I already briefly mentioned the concept in an earlier post, but Pareto-efficiency is so fundamental to both ethics and economics I decided I would spent some more time on explaining exactly what it’s about.

This is the core idea: A system is Pareto-efficient if you can’t make anyone better off without also making someone else worse off. It is Pareto-inefficient if the opposite is true, and you could improve someone’s situation without hurting anyone else.

Improving someone’s situation without harming anyone else is called a Pareto-improvement. A system is Pareto-efficient if and only if there are no possible Pareto-improvements.

Zero-sum games are always Pareto-efficient. If the game is about how we distribute the same $10 between two people, any dollar I get is a dollar you don’t get, so no matter what we do, we can’t make either of us better off without harming the other. You may have ideas about what the fair or right solution is—and I’ll get back to that shortly—but all possible distributions are Pareto-efficient.

Where Pareto-efficiency gets interesting is in nonzero-sum games. The most famous and most important such game is the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma; I don’t like the standard story to set up the game, so I’m going to give you my own. Two corporations, Alphacomp and Betatech, make PCs. The computers they make are of basically the same quality and neither is a big brand name, so very few customers are going to choose on anything except price. Combining labor, materials, equipment and so on, each PC costs each company $300 to manufacture a new PC, and most customers are willing to buy a PC as long as it’s no more than $1000. Suppose there are 1000 customers buying. Now the question is, what price do they set? They would both make the most profit if they set the price at $1000, because customers would still buy and they’d make $700 on each unit, each making $350,000. But now suppose Alphacomp sets a price at $1000; Betatech could undercut them by making the price $999 and sell twice as many PCs, making $699,000. And then Alphacomp could respond by setting the price at $998, and so on. The only stable end result if they are both selfish profit-maximizers—the Nash equilibrium—is when the price they both set is $301, meaning each company only profits $1 per PC, making $1000. Indeed, this result is what we call in economics perfect competition. This is great for consumers, but not so great for the companies.

If you focus on the most important choice, $1000 versus $999—to collude or to compete—we can set up a table of how much each company would profit by making that choice (a payoff matrix or normal form game in game theory jargon).

A: $999 A: $1000
B: $999 A:$349k




B: $1000 A:$699k




Obviously the choice that makes both companies best-off is for both companies to make the price $1000; that is Pareto-efficient. But it’s also Pareto-efficient for Alphacomp to choose $999 and the other one to choose $1000, because then they sell twice as many computers. We have made someone worse off—Betatech—but it’s still Pareto-efficient because we couldn’t give Betatech back what they lost without taking some of what Alphacomp gained.

There’s only one option that’s not Pareto-efficient: If both companies charge $999, they could both have made more money if they’d charged $1000 instead. The problem is, that’s not the Nash equilibrium; the stable state is the one where they set the price lower.

This means that only case that isn’t Pareto-efficient is the one that the system will naturally trend toward if both compal selfish profit-maximizers. (And while most human beings are nothing like that, most corporations actually get pretty close. They aren’t infinite, but they’re huge; they aren’t identical, but they’re very similar; and they basically are psychopaths.)

In jargon, we say the Nash equilibrium of a Prisoner’s Dilemma is Pareto-inefficient. That one sentence is basically why John Nash was such a big deal; up until that point, everyone had assumed that if everyone acted in their own self-interest, the end result would have to be Pareto-efficient; Nash proved that this isn’t true at all. Everyone acting in their own self-interest can doom us all.

It’s not hard to see why Pareto-efficiency would be a good thing: if we can make someone better off without hurting anyone else, why wouldn’t we? What’s harder for most people—and even most economists—to understand is that just because an outcome is Pareto-efficient, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

I think this is easiest to see in zero-sum games, so let’s go back to my little game of distributing the same $10. Let’s say it’s all within my power to choose—this is called the ultimatum game. If I take $9 for myself and only give you $1, is that Pareto-efficient? It sure is; for me to give you any more, I’d have to lose some for myself. But is it fair? Obviously not! The fair option is for me to go fifty-fifty, $5 and $5; and maybe you’d forgive me if I went sixty-forty, $6 and $4. But if I take $9 and only offer you $1, you know you’re getting a raw deal.

Actually as the game is often played, you have the choice the say, “Forget it; if that’s your offer, we both get nothing.” In that case the game is nonzero-sum, and the choice you’ve just taken is not Pareto-efficient! Neoclassicists are typically baffled at the fact that you would turn down that free $1, paltry as it may be; but I’m not baffled at all, and I’d probably do the same thing in your place. You’re willing to pay that $1 to punish me for being so stingy. And indeed, if you allow this punishment option, guess what? People aren’t as stingy! If you play the game without the rejection option, people typically take about $7 and give about $3 (still fairer than the $9/$1, you may notice; most people aren’t psychopaths), but if you allow it, people typically take about $6 and give about $4. Now, these are pretty small sums of money, so it’s a fair question what people might do if $100,000 were on the table and they were offered $10,000. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to stand up for fairness; it just means that they’re only willing to go so far. They’ll take a $1 hit to punish someone for being unfair, but that $10,000 hit is just too much. I suppose this means most of us do what Guess Who told us: “You can sell your soul, but don’t you sell it too cheap!”

Now, let’s move on to the more complicated—and more realistic—scenario of a nonzero-sum game. In fact, let’s make the “game” a real-world situation. Suppose Congress is debating a bill that would introduce a 70% marginal income tax on the top 1% to fund a basic income. (Please, can we debate that, instead of proposing a balanced-budget amendment that would cripple US fiscal policy indefinitely and lead to a permanent depression?)

This tax would raise about 14% of GDP in revenue, or about $2.4 trillion a year (yes, really). It would then provide, for every man, woman and child in America, a $7000 per year income, no questions asked. For a family of four, that would be $28,000, which is bound to make their lives better.

But of course it would also take a lot of money from the top 1%; Mitt Romney would only make $6 million a year instead of $20 million, and Bill Gates would have to settle for $2.4 billion a year instead of $8 billion. Since it’s the whole top 1%, it would also hurt a lot of people with more moderate high incomes, like your average neurosurgeon or Paul Krugman, who each make about $500,000 year. About $100,000 of that is above the cutoff for the top 1%, so they’d each have to pay about $70,000 more than they currently do in taxes; so if they were paying $175,000 they’re now paying $245,000. Once taking home $325,000, now only $255,000. (Probably not as big a difference as you thought, right? Most people do not seem to understand how marginal tax rates work, as evinced by “Joe the Plumber” who thought that if he made $250,001 he would be taxed at the top rate on the whole amount—no, just that last $1.)

You can even suppose that it would hurt the economy as a whole, though in fact there’s no evidence of that—we had tax rates like this in the 1960s and our economy did just fine. The basic income itself would inject so much spending into the economy that we might actually see more growth. But okay, for the sake of argument let’s suppose it also drops our per-capita GDP by 5%, from $53,000 to $50,300; that really doesn’t sound so bad, and any bigger drop than that is a totally unreasonable estimate based on prejudice rather than data. For the same tax rate might have to drop the basic income a bit too, say $6600 instead of $7000.

So, this is not a Pareto-improvement; we’re making some people better off, but others worse off. In fact, the way economists usually estimate Pareto-efficiency based on so-called “economic welfare”, they really just count up the total number of dollars and divide by the number of people and call it a day; so if we lose 5% in GDP they would register this as a Pareto-loss. (Yes, that’s a ridiculous way to do it for obvious reasons—$1 to Mitt Romney isn’t worth as much as it is to you and me—but it’s still how it’s usually done.)

But does that mean that it’s a bad idea? Not at all. In fact, if you assume that the real value—the utility—of a dollar decreases exponentially with each dollar you have, this policy could almost double the total happiness in US society. If you use a logarithm instead, it’s not quite as impressive; it’s only about a 20% improvement in total happiness—in other words, “only” making as much difference to the happiness of Americans from 2014 to 2015 as the entire period of economic growth from 1900 to 2000.

If right now you’re thinking, “Wow! Why aren’t we doing that?” that’s good, because I’ve been thinking the same thing for years. And maybe if we keep talking about it enough we can get people to start voting on it and actually make it happen.

But in order to make things like that happen, we must first get past the idea that Pareto-efficiency is the only thing that matters in moral decisions. And once again, that means overcoming the standard modes of thinking in neoclassical economics.

Something strange happened to economics in about 1950. Before that, economists from Marx to Smith to Keynes were always talking about differences in utility, marginal utility of wealth, how to maximize utility. But then economists stopped being comfortable talking about happiness, deciding (for reasons I still do not quite grasp) that it was “unscientific”, so they eschewed all discussion of the subject. Since we still needed to know why people choose what they do, a new framework was created revolving around “preferences”, which are a simple binary relation—you either prefer it or you don’t, you can’t like it “a lot more” or “a little more”—that is supposedly more measurable and therefore more “scientific”. But under this framework, there’s no way to say that giving a dollar to a homeless person makes a bigger difference to them than giving the same dollar to Mitt Romney, because a “bigger difference” is something you’ve defined out of existence. All you can say is that each would prefer to receive the dollar, and that both Mitt Romney and the homeless person would, given the choice, prefer to be Mitt Romney. While both of these things are true, it does seem to be kind of missing the point, doesn’t it?

There are stirrings of returning to actual talk about measuring actual (“cardinal”) utility, but still preferences (so-called “ordinal utility”) are the dominant framework. And in this framework, there’s really only one way to evaluate a situation as good or bad, and that’s Pareto-efficiency.

Actually, that’s not quite right; John Rawls cleverly came up with a way around this problem, by using the idea of “maximin”—maximize the minimum. Since each would prefer to be Romney, given the chance, we can say that the homeless person is worse off than Mitt Romney, and therefore say that it’s better to make the homeless person better off. We can’t say how much better, but at least we can say that it’s better, because we’re raising the floor instead of the ceiling. This is certainly a dramatic improvement, and on these grounds alone you can argue for the basic income—your floor is now explicitly set at the $6600 per year of the basic income.

But is that really all we can say? Think about how you make your own decisions; do you only speak in terms of strict preferences? I like Coke more than Pepsi; I like massages better than being stabbed. If preference theory is right, then there is no greater distance in the latter case than the former, because this whole notion of “distance” is unscientific. I guess we could expand the preference over groups of goods (baskets as they are generally called), and say that I prefer the set “drink Pepsi and get a massage” to the set “drink Coke and get stabbed”, which is certainly true. But do we really want to have to define that for every single possible combination of things that might happen to me? Suppose there are 1000 things that could happen to me at any given time, which is surely conservative. In that case there are 2^1000 = 10^300 possible combinations. If I were really just reading off a table of unrelated preference relations, there wouldn’t be room in my brain—or my planet—to store it, nor enough time in the history of the universe to read it. Even imposing rational constraints like transitivity doesn’t shrink the set anywhere near small enough—at best maybe now it’s 10^20, well done; now I theoretically could make one decision every billion years or so. At some point doesn’t it become a lot more parsimonious—dare I say, more scientific—to think that I am using some more organized measure than that? It certainly feels like I am; even if couldn’t exactly quantify it, I can definitely say that some differences in my happiness are large and others are small. The mild annoyance of drinking Pepsi instead of Coke will melt away in the massage, but no amount of Coke deliciousness is going to overcome the agony of being stabbed.

And indeed if you give people surveys and ask them how much they like things or how strongly they feel about things, they have no problem giving you answers out of 5 stars or on a scale from 1 to 10. Very few survey participants ever write in the comments box: “I was unable to take this survey because cardinal utility does not exist and I can only express binary preferences.” A few do write 1s and 10s on everything, but even those are fairly rare. This “cardinal utility” that supposedly doesn’t exist is the entire basis of the scoring system on Netflix and Amazon. In fact, if you use cardinal utility in voting, it is mathematically provable that you have the best possible voting system, which may have something to do with why Netflix and Amazon like it. (That’s another big “Why aren’t we doing this already?”)

If you can actually measure utility in this way, then there’s really not much reason to worry about Pareto-efficiency. If you just maximize utility, you’ll automatically get a Pareto-efficient result; but the converse is not true because there are plenty of Pareto-efficient scenarios that don’t maximize utility. Thinking back to our ultimatum game, all options are Pareto-efficient, but you can actually prove that the $5/$5 choice is the utility-maximizing one, if the two players have the same amount of wealth to start with. (Admittedly for those small amounts there isn’t much difference; but that’s also not too surprising, since $5 isn’t going to change anybody’s life.) And if they don’t—suppose I’m rich and you’re poor and we play the game—well, maybe I should give you more, precisely because we both know you need it more.

Perhaps even more significant, you can move from a Pareto-inefficient scenario to a Pareto-efficient one and make things worse in terms of utility. The scenario in which the top 1% are as wealthy as they can possibly be and the rest of us live on scraps may in fact be Pareto-efficient; but that doesn’t mean any of us should be interested in moving toward it (though sadly, we kind of are). If you’re only measuring in terms of Pareto-efficiency, your attempts at improvement can actually make things worse. It’s not that the concept is totally wrong; Pareto-efficiency is, other things equal, good; but other things are never equal.

So that’s Pareto-efficiency—and why you really shouldn’t care about it that much.

Who are you? What is this new blog? Why “Infinite Identical Psychopaths”?

My name is Patrick Julius. I am about halfway through a master’s degree in economics, specializing in the new subfield of cognitive economics (closely related to the also quite new fields of cognitive science and behavioral economics). This makes me in one sense heterodox; I disagree adamantly with most things that typical neoclassical economists say. But in another sense, I am actually quite orthodox. All I’m doing is bringing the insights of psychology, sociology, history, and political science—not to mention ethics—to the study of economics. The problem is simply that economists have divorced themselves so far from the rest of social science.

Another way I differ from most critics of mainstream economics (I’m looking at you, Peter Schiff) is that, for lack of a better phrase, I’m good at math. (As Bill Clinton said, “It’s arithmetic!”) I understand things like partial differential equations and subgame perfect equilibria, and therefore I am equipped to criticize them on their own terms. In this blog I will do my best to explain the esoteric mathematical concepts in terms most readers can understand, but it’s not always easy. The important thing to keep in mind is that fancy math can’t make a lie true; no matter how sophisticated its equations, a model that doesn’t fit the real world can’t be correct.

This blog, which I plan to update every Saturday, is about the current state of economics, both as it is and how economists imagine it to be. One of my central points is that these two are quite far apart, which has exacerbated if not caused the majority of economic problems in the world today. (Economists didn’t invent world hunger, but for over a decade now we’ve had the power to end it and haven’t done so. You’d be amazed how cheap it would be; we’re talking about 1% of First World GDP at most.)

The reason I call it “infinite identical psychopaths” is that this is what neoclassical economists appear to believe human beings are, at least if we judge by the models they use. These are the typical assumptions of a neoclassical economic model:

      1. Perfect information: All individuals know everything they need to know about the state of the world and the actions of other individuals.
      2. Rational expectations: Predictions about the future can only be wrong within a normal distribution, and in the long run are on average correct.
      3. Representative agents: All individuals are identical and interchangeable; a single type represents them all.
      4. Perfect competition: There are infinitely many agents in the market, and none of them ever collude with one another.
      5. “Economic rationality”: Individuals act according to a monotonic increasing utility function that is only dependent upon their own present and future consumption of goods.

I put the last one in scare quotes because it is the worst of the bunch. What economists call “rationality” has only a distant relation to actual rationality, either as understood by common usage or by formal philosophical terminology.

Don’t be scared by the terminology; a “utility function” is just a formal model of the things you care about when you make decisions. Things you want have positive utility; things you don’t want have negative utility. Larger numbers reflect stronger feelings: a bar of chocolate has much less positive utility than a decade of happy marriage; a pinched finger has much less negative utility than a year of continual torture. Utility maximization just means that you try to get the things you want and avoid the things you don’t. By talking about expected utility, we make some allowance for an uncertain future—but not much, because we have so-called “rational expectations”.

Since any action taken by an “economically rational” agent maximizes expected utility, it is impossible for such an agent to ever make a mistake in the usual sense. Whatever they do is always the best idea at the time. This is already an extremely strong assumption that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense applied to human beings; who among us can honestly say they’ve never done anything they later regretted?

The worst part, however, is the assumption that an individual’s utility function depends only upon their own consumption. What this means is that the only thing anyone cares about is how much stuff they have; considerations like family, loyalty, justice, honesty, and fairness cannot factor into their decisions. The “monotonic increasing” part means that more stuff is always better; if they already have twelve private jets, they’d still want a thirteenth; and even if children had to starve for it, they’d be just fine with that. They are, in other words, psychopaths. So that’s one word of my title.

I think “identical” is rather self-explanatory; by using representative agent models, neoclassicists effectively assume that there is no variation between human beings whatsoever. They all have the same desires, the same goals, the same capabilities, the same resources. Implicit in this assumption is the notion that there is no such thing as poverty or wealth inequality, not to mention diversity, disability, or even differences in taste. (One wonders why you’d even bother with economics if that were the case.)

As for “infinite”, that comes from the assumptions of perfect information and perfect competition. In order to really have perfect information, one would need a brain with enough storage capacity to contain the state of every particle in the visible universe. Maybe not quite infinite, but pretty darn close. Likewise, in order to have true perfect competition, there must be infinitely many individuals in the economy, all of whom are poised to instantly take any opportunity offered that allows them to make even the tiniest profit.

Now, you might be thinking this is a strawman; surely neoclassicists don’t actually believe that people are infinite identical psychopaths. They just model that way to simplify the mathematics, which is of course necessary because the world is far too vast and interconnected to analyze in its full complexity.

This is certainly true: Suppose it took you one microsecond to consider each possible position on a Go board; how long would it take you to go through them all? More time than we have left before the universe fades into heat death. A Go board has two colors (plus empty) and 361 spaces. Now imagine trying to understand a global economy of 7 billion people by brute-force analysis. Simplifying heuristics are unavoidable.

And some neoclassical economists—for example Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz—generally use these heuristics correctly; they understand the limitations of their models and don’t apply them in cases where they don’t belong. In that sort of case, there’s nothing particularly bad about these simplifying assumptions; they are like when a physicist models the trajectory of a spacecraft by assuming frictionless vacuum. Since outer space actually is close to a frictionless vacuum, this works pretty well; and if you need to make minor corrections (like the Pioneer Anomaly) you can.

However, this explanation already seems weird for the “economically rational” assumption (the psychopath part), because that doesn’t really make things much simpler. Why would we exclude the fact that people care about each other, they like to cooperate, they have feelings of loyalty and trust? And don’t tell me it’s because that’s impossible to quantify; behavioral geneticists already have a simple equation (C < r B) designed precisely to quantify altruism. (C is cost, B is benefit, r is relatedness.) I’d make only one slight modification; instead of r for relatedness, use p for psychological closeness, or as I like to call it, solidarity. For humans, solidarity is usually much higher than relatedness, though the two are correlated. C < p B.

Worse, there are other neoclassical economists—those of the most fanatically “free-market” bent—who really don’t seem to do this. I don’t know if they honestly believe that people are infinite identical psychopaths, but they make policy as if they did.

We have people like Stephen Moore saying that unemployment is “like a paid vacation” because obviously anyone who truly wants a job can immediately find one, or people like N. Gregory Mankiw arguing—in a published paper no less!—that the reason Steve Jobs was a billionaire was that he was actually a million times as productive as the rest of us, and therefore it would be inefficient (and, he implies but does not say outright, immoral) to take the fruits of those labors from him. (Honestly, I think I could concede the point and still argue for redistribution, on the grounds that people do not deserve to starve to death simply because they aren’t productive; but that’s the sort of thing never even considered by most neoclassicists, and anyway it’s a topic for another time.)

These kinds of statements would only make sense if markets were really as efficient and competitive as neoclassical models—that is, if people were infinite identical psychopaths. Allow even a single monopoly or just a few bits of imperfect information, and that whole edifice collapses.

And indeed if you’ve ever been unemployed or known someone who was, you know that our labor markets just ain’t that efficient. If you want to cut unemployment payments, you need a better argument than that. Similarly, it’s obvious to anyone who isn’t wearing the blinders of economic ideology that many large corporations exert monopoly power to increase their profits at our expense (How can you not see that Apple is a monopoly!?).

This sort of reasoning is more like plotting the trajectory of an aircraft on the assumption of frictionless vacuum; you’d be baffled as to where the oxidizer comes from, or how the craft manages to lift itself off the ground when the exhaust vents are pointed sideways instead of downward. And then you’d be telling the aerospace engineers to cut off the wings because they’re useless mass.

Worst of all, if we continue this analogy, the engineers would listen to you—they’d actually be convinced by your differential equations and cut off the wings just as you requested. Then the plane would never fly, and they’d ask if they could put the wings back on—but you’d adamantly insist that it was just coincidence, you just happened to be hit by a random problem at the very same moment as you cut off the wings, and putting them back on will do nothing and only make things worse.

No, seriously; so-called “Real Business Cycle” theory, while thoroughly obfuscated in esoteric mathematics, ultimately boils down to the assertion that financial crises have nothing to do with recessions, which are actually caused by random shocks to the real economy—the actual production of goods and services. The fact that a financial crisis always seems to happen just beforehand is, apparently, sheer coincidence, or at best some kind of forward-thinking response investors make as they see the storm coming. I want to you think for a minute about the idea that the kind of people who make computer programs that accidentally collapse the Dow, who made Bitcoin the first example in history of hyperdeflation, and who bought up Tweeter thinking it was Twitter are forward-thinking predictors of future events in real production.

And yet, it is on this sort of basis that our policy is made.

Can otherwise intelligent people really believe that these insane models are true? I’m not sure.
Sadly I think they may really believe that all people are psychopaths—because they themselves may be psychopaths. Economics students score higher on various psychopathic traits than other students. Part of this is self-selection—psychopaths are more likely to study economics—but the terrifying part is that part of it isn’t—studying economics may actually make you more like a sociopath. As I study for my master’s degree, I actually am somewhat afraid of being corrupted by this; I make sure to periodically disengage from their ideology and interact with normal people with normal human beliefs to recalibrate my moral compass.

Of course, it’s still pretty hard to imagine that anyone could honestly believe that the world economy is in a state of perfect information. But if they can’t really believe this insane assumption, why do they keep using models based on it?

The more charitable possibility is that they don’t appreciate just how sensitive the models are to the assumptions. They may think, for instance, that the General Welfare Theorems still basically apply if you relax the assumption of perfect information; maybe it’s not always Pareto-efficient, but it’s probably most of the time, right? Or at least close? Actually, no. The Myerson-Satterthwaithe Theorem says that once you give up perfect information, the whole theorem collapses; even a small amount of asymmetric information is enough to make it so that a Pareto-efficient outcome is impossible. And as you might expect, the more asymmetric the information is, the further the result deviates from Pareto-efficiency. And since we always have some asymmetric information, it looks like the General Welfare Theorems really aren’t doing much for us. They apply only in a magical fantasy world. (In case you didn’t know, Pareto-efficiency is a state in which it’s impossible to make any person better off without making someone else worse off. The real world is in a not Pareto-efficient state, which means that by smarter policy we could improve some people’s lives without hurting anyone else.)

The more sinister possibility is that they know full well that the models are wrong, they just don’t care. The models are really just excuses for an underlying ideology, the unshakeable belief that rich people are inherently better than poor people and private corporations are inherently better than governments. Hence, it must be bad for the economy to raise the minimum wage and good to cut income taxes, even though the empirical evidence runs exactly the opposite way; it must be good to subsidize big oil companies and bad to subsidize solar power research, even though that makes absolutely no sense.

One should normally be hesitant to attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity, but the “I trust the models” explanation just doesn’t work for some of the really extreme privatizations that the US has undergone since Reagan.

No neoclassical model says that you should privatize prisons; prisons are a classic example of a public good, which would be underfunded in a competitive market and basically has to be operated or funded by the government.

No neoclassical model would support the idea that the EPA is a terrorist organization (yes, a member of the US Congress said this). In fact, the economic case for environmental regulations is unassailable. (What else are we supposed to do, privatize the air?) The question is not whether to regulate and tax pollution, but how and how much.

No neoclassical model says that you should deregulate finance; in fact, most neoclassical models don’t even include a financial sector (as bizarre and terrifying as that is), and those that do generally assume it is in a state of perfect equilibrium with zero arbitrage. If the financial sector were actually in a state of zero arbitrage, no banks would make a profit at all.

In case you weren’t aware, arbitrage is the practice of making money off of money without actually making any goods or doing any services. Unlike manufacturing (which, oddly enough, almost all neoclassical models are based on—despite the fact that it is now a minority sector in First World GDP), there’s no value added. Under zero arbitrage, the interest rate a bank charges should be almost exactly the same as the interest rate it receives, with just enough gap between to barely cover their operating expenses—which should in turn be minimal, especially in a modern electronic system. If financial markets were at zero arbitrage equilibrium, it would be sensible to speak of a single “real interest rate” in the economy, the one that everyone pays and everyone receives. Of course, those of us who live in the real world know that not only do different people pay radically different rates, most people have multiple outstanding lines of credit, each with a different rate. My savings account is 0.5%, my car loan is 5.5%, and my biggest credit card is 19%. These basically span the entire range of sensible interest rates (frankly 19% may even exceed that; that’s a doubling time of 3.6 years), and I know I’m not the exception but the rule.

So that’s the mess we’re in. Stay tuned; in future weeks I’ll talk about what we can do about it.