The injustice of positional goods

July 15 JDN 2458315

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The housing shortage is an international phenomenon

Jul 1 JDN 2458301

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inherent atrocity of “border security”

Jun 24 JDN 2458294

By now you are probably aware of the fact that a new “zero tolerance” border security policy under the Trump administration has resulted in 2,000 children being forcibly separated from their parents by US government agents. If you weren’t, here are a variety of different sources all telling the same basic story of large-scale state violence and terror.

Make no mistake: This is an atrocity. The United Nations has explicitly condemned this human rights violation—to which Trump responded by making an unprecedented threat of withdrawing unilaterally from the UN Human Rights Council.

#ThisIsNotNormal, and Trump was everything we feared—everything we warned—he would be: Corrupt, incompetent, cruel, and authoritarian.

Yet Trump’s border policy differs mainly in degree, not kind, from existing US border policy. There is much more continuity here than most of us would like to admit.

The Trump administration has dramatically increased “interior removals”, the most obviously cruel acts, where ICE agents break into the houses of people living in the US and take them away. Don’t let the cold language fool you; this is literally people with guns breaking into your home and kidnapping members of your family. This is characteristic of totalitarian governments, not liberal democracies.

And yet, the Obama administration actually holds the record for most deportations (though only because they included “at-border deportations” which other administrations did not). A major policy change by George W. Bush started this whole process of detaining people at the border instead of releasing them and requiring them to return for later court dates.

I could keep going back; US border enforcement has gotten more and more aggressive as time goes on. US border security staffing has quintupled since just 1990. There was a time when the United States was a land of opportunity that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”; but that time is long past.

And this, in itself, is a human rights violation. Indeed, I am convinced that border security itself is inherently a human rights violation, always and everywhere; future generations will not praise us for being more restrained than Trump’s abject and intentional cruelty, but condemn us for acting under the same basic moral framework that justified it.

There is an imaginary line in the sand just a hundred miles south of where I sit now. On one side of the line, a typical family makes $66,000 per year. On the other side, a typical family makes only $20,000. On one side of the line, life expectancy is 81 years; on the other, 77. This means that over their lifetime, someone on this side of the line can expect to make over one million dollars more than they would if they had lived on the other side. Step across this line, get a million dollars; it sounds ridiculous, but it’s an empirical fact.

This would be bizarre enough by itself; but now consider that on that line there are fences, guard towers, and soldiers who will keep you from crossing it. If you have appropriate papers, you can cross; but if you don’t, they will arrest and detain you, potentially for months. This is not how we treat you if you are carrying contraband or have a criminal record. This is how we treat you if you don’t have a passport.

How can we possibly reconcile this with the principles of liberal democracy? Philosophers have tried, to be sure. Yet they invariably rely upon some notion that the people who want to cross our border are coming from another country where they were already granted basic human rights and democratic representation—which is almost never the case. People who come here from the UK or the Netherlands or generally have the proper visas. Even people who come here from China usually have visas—though China is by no means a liberal democracy. It’s people who come here from Haiti and Nicaragua who don’t—and these are some of the most corrupt and impoverished nations in the world.

As I said in an earlier post, I was not offended that Trump characterized countries like Haiti and Syria as “shitholes”. By any objective standard, that is accurate; these countries are terrible, terrible places to live. No, what offends me is that he thinks this gives us a right to turn these people away, as though the horrible conditions of their country somehow “rub off” on them and make them less worthy as human beings. On the contrary, we have a word for people who come from “shithole” countries seeking help, and that word is “refugee”.

Under international law, “refugee” has a very specific legal meaning, under which most immigrants do not qualify. But in a broader moral sense, almost every immigrant is a refugee. People don’t uproot themselves and travel thousands of miles on a whim. They are coming here because conditions in their home country are so bad that they simply cannot tolerate them anymore, and they come to us desperately seeking our help. They aren’t asking for handouts of free money—illegal immigrants are a net gain for our fiscal system, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are looking for jobs, and willing to accept much lower wages than the workers already here—because those wages are still dramatically higher than what they had where they came from.

Of course, that does potentially mean they are competing with local low-wage workers, doesn’t it? Yes—but not as much as you might think. There is only a very weak relationship between higher immigration and lower wages (some studies find none at all!), even at the largest plausible estimates, the gain in welfare for the immigrants is dramatically higher than the loss in welfare for the low-wage workers who are already here. It’s not even a question of valuing them equally; as long as you value an immigrant at least one tenth as much as a native-born citizen, the equation comes out favoring more immigration.

This is for two reasons: One, most native-born workers already are unwilling to do the jobs that most immigrants do, such as picking fruit and laying masonry; and two, increased spending by immigrants boosts the local economy enough to compensate for any job losses.

 

But even aside from the economic impacts, what is the moral case for border security?

I have heard many people argue that “It’s our home, we should be able to decide who lives here.” First of all, there are some major differences between letting someone live in your home and letting someone come into your country. I’m not saying we should allow immigrants to force themselves into people’s homes, only that we shouldn’t arrest them when they try cross the border.

But even if I were to accept the analogy, if someone were fleeing oppression by an authoritarian government and asked to live in my home, I would let them. I would help hide them from the government if they were trying to escape persecution. I would even be willing to house people simply trying to escape poverty, as long as it were part of a well-organized program designed to ensure that everyone actually gets helped and the burden on homeowners and renters was not too great. I wouldn’t simply let homeless people come live here, because that creates all sorts of coordination problems (I can only fit so many, and how do I prioritize which ones?); but I’d absolutely participate in a program that coordinates placement of homeless families in apartments provided by volunteers. (In fact, maybe I should try to petition for such a program, as Southern California has a huge homelessness rate due to our ridiculous housing prices.)

Many people seem to fear that immigrants will bring crime, but actually they reduce crime rates. It’s really kind of astonishing how much less crime immigrants commit than locals. My hypothesis is that immigrants are a self-selected sample; the kind of person willing to move thousands of miles isn’t the kind of person who commits a lot of crimes.
I understand wanting to keep out terrorists and drug smugglers, but there are already plenty of terrorists and drug smugglers here in the US; if we are unwilling to set up border security between California and Nevada, I don’t see why we should be setting it up between California and Baja California. But okay, fine, we can keep the customs agents who inspect your belongings when you cross the border. If someone doesn’t have proper documentation, we can even detain and interrogate them—for a few hours, not a few months. The goal should be to detect dangerous criminals and nothing else. Once we are confident that you have not committed any felonies, we should let you through—frankly, we should give you a green card. We should only be willing to detain someone at the border for the same reasons we would be willing to detain a citizen who already lives here—that is, probable cause for an actual crime. (And no, you don’t get to count “illegal border crossing” as a crime, because that’s begging the question. By the same logic I could justify detaining people for jaywalking.)

A lot of people argue that restricting immigration is necessary to “preserve local culture”; but I’m not even sure that this is a goal sufficiently important to justify arresting and detaining people, and in any case, that’s really not how culture works. Culture is not advanced by purism and stagnation, but by openness and cross-pollination. From anime to pizza, many of our most valued cultural traditions would not exist without interaction across cultural boundaries. Introducing more Spanish speakers into the US may make us start saying no problemo and vamonos, but it’s not going to destroy liberal democracy. If you value culture, you should value interactions across different societies.

Most importantly, think about what you are trying to justify. Even if we stop doing Trump’s most extreme acts of cruelty, we are still talking about using military force to stop people from crossing an imaginary line. ICE basically treats people the same way the SS did. “Papers, please” isn’t something we associate with free societies—it’s characteristic of totalitarianism. We are so accustomed to border security (or so ignorant of its details) that we don’t see it for the atrocity it so obviously is.

National borders function something very much like feudal privilege. We have our “birthright”, which grants us all sorts of benefits and special privileges—literally tripling our incomes and extending our lives. We did nothing to earn this privilege. If anything, we show ourselves to be less deserving (e.g. by committing more crimes). And we use the government to defend our privilege by force.

Are people born on the other side of the line less human? Are they less morally worthy? On what grounds do we point guns at them and lock them away for the “crime” of wanting to live here?

What Trump is doing right now is horrific. But it is not that much more horrific than what we were already doing. My hope is that this will finally open our eyes to the horrors that we had been participating in all along.

What we could, what we should, and what we must

May 27 JDN 2458266

In one of the most famous essays in all of ethical philosophy, Peter Singer famously argued that we are morally obligated to give so much to charity that we would effectively reduce ourselves to poverty only slightly better than what our donations sought to prevent. His argument is a surprisingly convincing one, especially for such a radical proposition. Indeed, one of the core activities of the Effective Altruism movement has basically been finding ways to moderate Singer’s argument without giving up on its core principles, because it’s so obvious both that we ought to do much more to help people around the world and that there’s no way we’re ever going to do what that argument actually asks of us.

The most cost-effective charities in the world can save a human life for an average cost of under $4,000. The maneuver that Singer basically makes is quite simple: If you know that you could save someone’s life for $4,000, you have $4,000 to spend, and instead you spend that $4,000 on something else, aren’t you saying that whatever you did spend it on was more important than saving that person’s life? And is that really something you believe?

But if you think a little more carefully, it becomes clear that things are not quite so simple. You aren’t being paid $4,000 to kill someone, first of all. If you were willing to accept $4,000 as sufficient payment to commit a murder, you would be, quite simply, a monster. Implicitly the “infinite identical psychopath” of neoclassical rational agent models would be willing to do such a thing, but very few actual human beings—even actual psychopaths—are that callous.

Obviously, we must refrain from murdering people, even for amounts far in excess of $4,000. If you were offered the chance to murder someone for $4 billion dollars, I can understand why you would be tempted to do such a thing. Think of what you could do with all that money! Not only would you and everyone in your immediate family be independently wealthy for life, you could donate billions of dollars to charity and save as much as a million lives. What’s one life for a million? Even then, I have a strong intuition that you shouldn’t commit this murder—but I have never been able to find a compelling moral argument for why. The best I’ve been able to come up with a sort of Kantian notion: What if everyone did this?

Since the most plausible scenario is that the $4 billion comes from existing wealth, all those murders would simply be transferring wealth around, from unknown sources. If you stipulate where the wealth comes from, the dilemma can change quite a bit.

Suppose for example the $4 billion is confiscated from Bashar Al-Assad. That would be in itself a good thing, lessening the power of a genocidal tyrant. So we need to add that to the positive side of the ledger. It is probably worth killing one innocent person just to undermine Al-Assad’s power; indeed, the US Air Force certainly seems to think so, as they average more than one civilian fatality every day in airstrikes.

Now suppose the wealth was extracted by clever financial machinations that took just a few dollars out of every bank account in America. This would be in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not a terrible thing, especially since we’re planning on giving most of it to UNICEF. Those people should have given it anyway, right? This sounds like a pretty good movie, actually; a cyberpunk Robin Hood basically.

Next, suppose it was obtained by stealing the life savings of a million poor people in Africa. Now the method of obtaining the money is so terrible that it’s not clear that funneling it through UNICEF would compensate, even if you didn’t have to murder someone to get it.

Finally, suppose that the wealth is actually created anew—not printed money from the Federal Reserve, but some new technology that will increase the world’s wealth by billions of dollars yet requires the death of an innocent person to create. In this scenario, the murder has become something more like the inherent risk in human subjects biomedical research, and actually seems justifiable. And indeed, that fits with the Kantian answer, for if we all had the chance to kill one person in order to create something that would increase the wealth of the world by $4 billion, we could turn this planet into a post-scarcity utopia within a generation for fewer deaths than are currently caused by diabetes.

Anyway, my point here is that the detailed context of a decision actually matters a great deal. We can’t simply abstract away from everything else in the world and ask whether the money is worth the life.

When we consider this broader context with regard to the world’s most cost-effective charities, it becomes apparent that a small proportion of very dedicated people giving huge proportions of their income to charity is not the kind of world we want to see.

If I actually gave so much that I equalized my marginal utility of wealth to that of a child dying of malaria in Ghana, I would have to donate over 95% of my income—and well before that point, I would be homeless and impoverished. This actually seems penny-wise and pound-foolish even from the perspective of total altruism: If I stop paying rent, it gets a lot harder for me to finish my doctorate and become a development economist. And even if I never donated another dollar, the world would be much better off with one more good development economist than with even another $23,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. Once you factor in the higher income I’ll have (and proportionately higher donations I’ll make), it’s obviously the wrong decision for me to give 95% of $25,000 today rather than 10% of $70,000 every year for the next 20 years after I graduate.

But the optimal amount for me to donate from that perspective is whatever the maximum would be that I could give without jeopardizing my education and career prospects. This is almost certainly more than I am presently giving. Exactly how much more is actually not all that apparent: It’s not enough to say that I need to be able to pay rent, eat three meals a day, and own a laptop that’s good enough for programming and statistical analysis. There’s also a certain amount that I need for leisure, to keep myself at optimal cognitive functioning for the next several years. Do I need that specific video game, that specific movie? Surely not—but if I go the next ten years without ever watching another movie or playing another video game, I’m probably going to be in trouble psychologically. But what exactly is the minimum amount to keep me functioning well? And how much should I be willing to spend attending conferences? Those can be important career-building activities, but they can also be expensive wastes of time.

Singer acts as though jeopardizing your career prospects is no big deal, but this is clearly wrong: The harm isn’t just to your own well-being, but also to your productivity and earning power that could have allowed you to donate more later. You are a human capital asset, and you are right to invest in yourself. Exactly how much you should invest in yourself is a much harder question.
Such calculations are extremely difficult to do. There are all sorts of variables I simply don’t know, and don’t have any clear way of finding out. It’s not a good sign for an ethical theory when even someone with years of education and expertise on specifically that topic still can’t figure out the answer. Ethics is supposed to be something we can apply to everyone.

So I think it’s most helpful to think in those terms: What could we apply to everyone? What standard of donation would be high enough if we could get everyone on board?

World poverty is rapidly declining. The direct poverty gap at the UN poverty line of $1.90 per day is now only $80 billion. Realistically, we couldn’t simply close that gap precisely (there would also be all sorts of perverse incentives if we tried to do it that way). But the standard estimate that it would take about $300 billion per year in well-targeted spending to eliminate world hunger is looking very good.

How much would each person, just those in the middle class or above within the US or the EU, have to give in order to raise this much?
89% of US income is received by the top 60% of households (who I would said are unambiguously “middle class or above”). Income inequality is not as extreme within the EU, so the proportion of income received by the top 60% seems to be more like 75%.

89% of US GDP plus 75% of EU GDP is all together about $29 trillion per year. This means that in order to raise $300 billion, each person in the middle class or above would need to donate just over one percent of their income.

Not 95%. Not 25%. Not even 10%. Just 1%. That would be enough.

Of course, more is generally better—at least until you start jeopardizing your career prospects. So by all means, give 2% or 5% or even 10%. But I really don’t think it’s helpful to make people feel guilty about not giving 95% when all we really needed was for everyone to give 1%.

There is an important difference between what we could do, what we should do, and what we must do.

What we must do are moral obligations so strong they are essentially inviolable: We must not murder people. There may be extreme circumstances where exceptions can be made (such as collateral damage in war), and we can always come up with hypothetical scenarios that would justify almost anything, but for the vast majority of people the vast majority of time, these ethical rules are absolutely binding.

What we should do are moral obligations that are strong enough to be marks against your character if you break them, but not so absolutely binding that you have to be a monster not to follow them. This is where I put donating at least 1% of your income. (This is also where I put being vegetarian, but perhaps that is a topic for another time.) You really ought to do it, and you are doing something wrongful if you don’t—but most people don’t, and you are not a terrible person if you don’t.

This latter category is in part socially constructed, based on the norms people actually follow. Today, slavery is obviously a grave crime, and to be a human trafficker who participates in it you must be a psychopath. But two hundred years ago, things were somewhat different: Slavery was still wrong, yes, but it was quite possible to be an ordinary person who was generally an upstanding citizen in most respects and yet still own slaves. I would still condemn people who owned slaves back then, but not nearly as forcefully as I would condemn someone who owned slaves today. Two hundred years from now, perhaps vegetarianism will move up a category: The norm will be that everyone eats only plants, and someone who went out of their way to kill and eat a pig would have to be a psychopath. Eating meat is already wrong today—but it will be more wrong in the future. I’d say the same about donating 1% of your income, but actually I’m hoping that by two hundred years from now there will be no more poverty left to eradicate, and donation will no longer be necessary.

Finally, there is what we could do—supererogatory, even heroic actions of self-sacrifice that would make the world a better place, but cannot be reasonably expected of us. This is where donating 95% or even 25% of your income would fall. Yes, absolutely, that would help more people than donating 1%; but you don’t owe the world that much. It’s not wrong for you to contribute less than this. You don’t need to feel guilty for not giving this much.

But I do want to make you feel guilty if you don’t give at least 1%. Don’t tell me you can’t. You can. If your income is $30,000 per year, that’s $300 per year. If you needed that much for a car repair, or dental work, or fixing your roof, you’d find a way to come up with it. No one in the First World middle class is that liquidity-constrained. It is true that half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency, but I frankly don’t believe it. (I believe it for the bottom 25% or so, who are actually poor; but not half of Americans.) If you have even one credit card that’s not maxed out, you can do this—and frankly even if a card is maxed out, you can probably call them and get them to raise your limit. There is something you could cut out of your spending that would allow you to get back 1% of your annual income. I don’t know what it is, necessarily: Restaurants? Entertainment? Clothes? But I’m not asking you to give a third of your income—I’m asking you to give one penny out of every dollar.

I give considerably more than that; my current donation target is 8% and I’m planning on raising it to 10% or more once I get a high-paying job. I live on a grad student salary which is less than the median personal income in the US. So I know it can be done. But I am very intentionally not asking you to give this much; that would be above and beyond the call of duty. I’m only asking you to give 1%.

You know what? Let’s repeal Obamacare. Here’s my replacement.

Feb 18 JDN 2458168

By all reasonable measures, Obamacare has been a success. Healthcare costs are down but coverage rates are up. It reduced both the federal deficit and after-tax income inequality.

But Republicans have hated it the whole time, and in particular the individual mandate provision has always been unpopular. Under the Trump administration, the individual mandate has now been repealed.

By itself, this can only be disastrous. It threatens to undermine all the successes of the entire Obamacare system. Without the individual mandate, covering pre-existing conditions means that people can simply wait to get insurance until they need it—at which point it’s not insurance anymore. The risks stop being shared and end up concentrated on whoever gets sick, then we go back to people going bankrupt because they were unlucky enough to get cancer. The individual mandate was vital to making Obamacare work.

But I do actually understand why the individual mandate is unpopular: Nobody likes being forced into buying anything.

John Roberts ruled that the individual mandate was Constitutional on the grounds that it is economically equivalent to a tax. This is absolutely correct, and I applaud his sound reasoning.

That said, the individual mandate is not in fact psychologically equivalent to a tax.

Psychologically, being forced to specifically buy something or face punishment feels a lot more coercive than simply owing a certain amount of money that the government will use to buy something. Roberts is right; economically, these two things are equivalent. The same real goods get purchased, at the same people’s expense; the accounts balance in the same way. But it feels different.

And it would feel different to me too, if I were required to actually shop for that particular avionic component on that Apache helicopter my taxes paid for, or if I had to write a check for that particular section of Highway 405 that my taxes helped maintain. Yes, I know that I give the government a certain amount of money that they spent on salaries for US military personnel; but I’d find it pretty weird if they required me to actually hand over the money in cash to some specific Marine. (On the other hand, this sort of thing might actually give people a more visceral feel for the benefits of taxes, much as microfinance agencies like to show you the faces of particular people as you give them loans, whether or not those people are actually the ones getting your money.)

There’s another reason it feels different as well: We have framed the individual mandate as a penalty, as a loss. Human beings are loss averse; losing $10 feels about twice as bad as not getting $10. That makes the mandate more unpleasant, hence more unpopular.

What could we do instead? Well, obviously, we could implement a single-payer healthcare system like we already have in Medicare, like they have in Canada and the UK, or like they have in Scandinavia (#ScandinaviaIsBetter). And that’s really what we should do.

But since that doesn’t seem to be on the table right now, here’s my compromise proposal. Okay, yes, let’s repeal Obamacare. No more individual mandate. No fines for not having health insurance.

Here’s what we would do instead: You get a bonus refundable tax credit for having health insurance.

We top off the income tax rate to adjust so that revenue ends up the same.

Say goodbye to the “individual mandate” and welcome the “health care bonus rebate”.

Most of you reading this are economically savvy enough to realize that’s the same thing. If I tax you $100, then refund $100 if you have health insurance, that’s completely equivalent to charging you a fine of $100 if you don’t have health insurance.

But it doesn’t feel the same to most people. A fine feels like a punishment, like a loss. It hurts more than a mere foregone bonus, and it contains an element of disapproval and public shame.

Whereas, we forgo refundable tax credits all the time. You’ve probably forgone dozens of refundable tax credits you could have gotten, either because you didn’t know about them or because you realized they weren’t worth it to you.

Now instead of the government punishing you for such a petty crime as not having health insurance, the government is rewarding you for the responsible civic choice of having health insurance. We have replaced a mean, vindictive government with a friendly, supportive government.

Positive reinforcement is more reliable anyway. (Any child psychologist will tell you that while punishment is largely ineffective and corporal punishment is outright counterproductive, reward systems absolutely do work.) Uptake of health insurance should be at least as good as before, but the policy will be much more popular.

It’s a very simple change to make. It could be done in a single tax bill. Economically, it makes no difference at all. But psychologically—and politically—it could make all the difference in the world.

Why is redistribution of wealth so difficult to achieve in the US?

Jan 28 JDN 2458147

Income and wealth in equality is much higher in the US than in other First World countries. Within the OECD, only Mexico, Turkey, and Chile have higher income inequality than we do. Over 60% of Americans agree that the distribution of wealth in the US is unfair. Furthermore, the majority of Americans support the use of taxes and transfers to directly redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

Why, then, is it so hard to actually get any meaningful wealth redistribution in the United States?

Part of it is surely partisan differences: While about 70% of Democrats favor redistributive taxes, about 70% of Republicans oppose them. So one would not expect a move toward redistribution when Republicans control all three branches of government, and indeed we have seen quite the opposite. (Then again, one would also not expect a government shutdown under one-party rule, and yet that is what we have.)

But even most Republicans say they would like to see a much more equal distribution of wealth than the one we actually have. In fact, when I as an inequality economist look at the distribution of wealth people say they want, it looks a little too equal! Even Denmark and Sweden aren’t that egalitarian! I know more or less how to get from here to Denmark; but from here to “Equalden” looks like an awful long way. So if this is really the distribution of wealth people want, we need to be doing a huge amount of wealth redistribution—but we’re hardly doing any at all.

Indeed, we didn’t actually see all that much redistribution of wealth when Democrats more or less controlled all three branches in the period from 2008-2010. We may have seen a little bit shortly thereafter, and tax policy typically does come with a delay of a year or two. But as you can see in this graph, the Great Recession did more to reduce the top 1% income share than any tax policy changes:

US_top_income_share_1pct

The biggest changes made to our tax code under Obama were actually the handling of capital gains; the increase of the top rate on capital gains from 15% to 20%, plus the 3.8% capital surtax from the Affordable Care Act raised the tax bill for the top 0.1% by tens of billions of dollars. Surprisingly, Trump’s tax cuts don’t actually remove these provisions, though they did dramatically cut the corporate tax rate, which will probably have a similar effect on the income distribution.

To be honest, I’m not as disappointed with Trump’s tax cuts as I thought I would be. Some genuinely good ideas (like the reduction of the mortgage interest deduction, tighter restrictions on carried interest, and increase of the personal standard deduction) and some reasonable but debatable ideas (like cuts to the corporate tax rate, switching to a territorial corporate tax system, limits to deductions on corporate debt payments, removal of the deduction of state taxes, and extensions of 529 savings plans to private primary and secondary schools) were mixed in with the absolutely ludicrous and terrible ideas (like eliminating the Obamacare mandate, doubling the estate tax threshold, cutting the alcohol tax, and allowing offshore drilling in Alaska [One of these things is not like the other ones….]). Some of the terrible ideas, like ending the deduction of student loan interest and tuition waivers, were actually removed in the final version of the bill. Of course, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that the overall US tax system became a lot less progressive as a result of this bill. And even if cutting the corporate tax while raising the capital gains tax is probably a good idea (as I and many economists believe), cutting the corporate tax without raising the capital gains tax probably isn’t.

(An aside: For how much they claim to be “tough on crime”, it’s always kind of baffling to see how often Republicans like to cut alcohol taxes and pollution regulations, which are pretty much the only things that have ever been empirically shown to actually reduce crime. There is some evidence that maybe more policing also helps, but if so, it does so in a far less cost-effective way—indeed, the direct cost of alcohol taxes and pollution taxes is negative. Even if they didn’t work at all, they’d still be worth it just because they raise revenue. I begin to suspect that Republicans don’t actually want to reduce crime, because they know they can use the fear of crime to win votes; they simply want to appear tough on crime, and so they press as hard as they can for more policing and incarceration in the country that already has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This may be a more general phenomenon: While Democrats want to actually solve problems, Republicans want to appear to solve problems while actually exacerbating them, thus insuring their own job security. Compare how Bush kept talking about Osama bin laden while invading Iraq, and Obama actually killed Osama bin Laden. Is this too cynical? Can anything be too cynical in the era of Trump? There were 50,000 Russian bots on Twitter trying to tilt our election! Mueller’s FBI investigation is already implicating several of Trump’s top officials! Everything that seemed like paranoia or cynicism just a few years ago is turning out to be entirely true.)

This is what seems to happen: Year after year, we raise some taxes, then we cut some taxes. Then when raise some taxes, then we cut some taxes. The tax system gets a little more progressive for a few years and inequality begins to fall, and then those changes are removed and inequality begins to rise again. Back and forth and round and round we go.

Is there some way to lock in these tax changes for a longer period of time? The only way I can see would be a change in voter behavior: Keep voting in Democrats to all branches of government consistently for 20 years, and then maybe we would see a serious reduction in income and wealth inequality. Or at least stop voting in Republicans; aside from the Democrats, there are some third parties that would also support redistribution, like the Green Party. And yes, it really is about voting behavior: As prevalent as gerrymandering has become, as terrible as the Electoral College is, as widespread as voter suppression has gotten, Trump only won because 63 million Americans voted for him. Even after everything he’s done, Trumps’ approval rating is still about 39%. As long as there are enough people in this country whose partisan loyalty so strongly outweighs any rational assessment of policy, we are going to continue to see such travesties continue.

It would certainly help if our voting system were fairer, so that third parties had a better chance at taking seats. But it’s also difficult to see how that could happen any time soon. For now, the best I can come up with is trying to show people two things:

First, most Americans favor redistribution of wealth. You’re not alone in wanting that. It’s not some fringe opinion.

Second, there is a real difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. The canard “The two parties are the same” is the most untrue it has been in at least twenty years.

I would even understand if there are other issues you consider more important than wealth redistribution. Ecological sustainability is the most defensible—you can’t eat GNP—though that would push you even harder toward the left. Among things that might push you right, I can understand being concerned about higher taxes hurting economic growth, and while I think the view that abortion is murder is ludicrous, given that as your belief I can understand why you would want to prioritize fighting abortion. (If I thought we were murdering millions of babies every year, I’d be pretty mad too! Of course, you should be glad, then, that the US abortion rate has been falling. Right? You know about that, right?)

What I don’t get, however, is people who thought that voting for Donald Trump would help working people. I don’t understand how you can see someone who epitomizes everything that is wrong with the billionaire rentier class and think, “Yeah, he seems like he’s definitely a populist. That guy who was born insanely rich and made even more mind-boggling amounts of money by lying and screwing people over is definitely going to look out for folks like me.”

If I understood that, maybe I would know where to go from here. But people’s political beliefs can be astonishingly intransigent to evidence. Politics is the mind-killer.

Did the World Bank modify its ratings to manipulate the outcome of an election in Chile?

Jan 21 JDN 2458140

(By the way, my birthday is January 19. I can’t believe I’m turning 30.)

This is a fairly obscure news item, so you may have missed it. It should be bigger news than it is.
I can’t fault the New York Times for having its front page focus mainly on the false missile alert that was issued to some people in Hawaii; a false alarm of nuclear attack definitely is the most important thing that could be going on in the world, short of course of actual nuclear war.

CNN, on the other hand, is focused entirely on Trump. When I first wrote this post, they were also focused on Trump, mainly interested in asking whether Trump’s comments about “immigrants from shithole countries” was racist. My answer: Yes, but not because he said the countries were “shitholes”. That was crude, yes, but not altogether inaccurate. Countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan are, by any objective measure, terrible places. His comments were racist because they attributed that awfulness to the people leaving these countries. But in fact we have a word for immigrants who flee terrible places seeking help and shelter elsewhere: Refugees. We call those people refugees. There are over 10 million refugees in the world today, most of them from Syria.

So anyway, here’s the news item you should have heard about but probably didn’t: The Chief Economist of the World Bank (Paul Romer, who coincidentally I mentioned in my post about DSGE models) has opened an investigation into the possibility that the World Bank’s ratings of economic freedom were intentionally manipulated in order to tilt a Presidential election in Chile.

The worst part is, it may have worked: Chile’s “Doing Business” rating consistently fell under President Michelle Bachelet and rose under President Sebastian Piñera, and Piñera won the most recent election. Was that the reason he won? Who knows? I’m still not entirely clear on how we ended up with President Trump. But it very likely contributed.

The World Bank is supposed to be an impartial institution representing the interests of global economic development. I’m not naive; I recognize that no human institution is perfect, and there will always be competing political and economic interests within any complex institution. Development economists are subject to cognitive biases just like anyone else. If this was the work of a handful of economic analysts (or if Romer turns out to be wrong and the changes in statistical methodology were totally reasonable), so be it; let’s make sure that the bias is corrected and the analysts involved are punished.

But I fear that the rot may run deeper than this. The World Bank is effectively a form of unelected international government. It has been accused of inherent pro-capitalist (or even racist) bias due to the fact that Western governments are overrepresented in its governance, but I actually consider that accusation unfair: There are very good reasons to make sure that your international institutions are managed by liberal democracies, and turns out that most of the world’s liberal democracies are Western. The fact that the US, France, Germany, and the UK make most of the decisions is entirely sensible: Those are in fact the countries we should want making global decisions.

China is not underrepresented, because China is not a democracy and doesn’t deserve to be represented. They are already more represented in the World Bank than they should be, because representing the PRC is not actually representing the interests of the people of China. Russia and Saudi Arabia are undeniably overrepresented. India is underrepresented; they should be complaining. Some African democracies, such as Namibia and Botswana, would also have a legitimate claim to underrepresentation. But I don’t lose any sleep over the fact that Zimbabwe and Iran aren’t getting votes in the World Bank. If and when those countries actually start representing their people, then we can talk about giving them representation in world government. I don’t see how refusing to give international authority to dictators and theocrats constitutes racism or pro-capitalist bias.

That said, there are other reasons to think that the World Bank might actually have some sort of pro-capitalist bias. The World Bank was instrumental in forming the Washington Consensus, which opened free trade and increase economic growth worldwide, but also exposed many poor countries to risk from deregulated financial markets and undermined social safety nets through fiscal austerity programs. They weren’t wrong to want more free trade, and many of their reforms did make sense; but they were at best wildly overconfident in their policy prescriptions, and at worst willing to sacrifice people in poor countries at the altar of bank profits. World poverty has in fact fallen by about half since 1990, and the World Bank has a lot to do with that. But things may have gone faster and smoother if they hadn’t insisted on removing so many financial regulations so quickly without clear forecasts of what would happen. I don’t share Jason Hickel’s pessimistic view that the World Bank’s failures were intentional acts toward an ulterior agenda, but I can see how it begins to look that way when they keep failing the same ways over and over again. (I instead invoke Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”)

There are also reports of people facing retaliation for criticizing World Bank projects, including those within the World Bank who raise ethical concerns. If this was politically-motivated data manipulation, there may have been people who saw it happening, but were afraid to say anything for fear of being fired or worse.

And Chile in particular has reason to be suspicious. The World Bank suddenly started giving loans to Chile when Augusto Pinochet took power (the CIA denies supporting the coup, by the way—though, given the source, I can understand why one would take that with a grain of salt), and did so under the explicit reasoning that an authoritarian capitalist regime was somehow “more trustworthy” than a democratic socialist regime. Even in the narrow sense of financial creditworthiness that seems difficult to defend; the World Bank knew almost nothing about what kind of government Pinochet was going to create, and in fact despite the so-called “Miracle of Chile”, rapid economic growth in Chile didn’t really happen until the 1990s, after Chile became a democratic capitalist regime.

What I’m really getting at here is that the World Bank has a lot to answer for. I am prepared to believe that most of these actions were honest mistakes or ideological blinders, rather than corruption or cruelty; but even so, when millions of lives are at stake, even honest mistakes aren’t so forgivable. They should be looking for ways to improve their internal governance to make sure that mistakes are caught and corrected quickly. They should be constantly vigilant for biases—either intentional or otherwise—that might seep into their research. Error should be met with immediate correction and public apology; malfeasance should be met with severe punishment.

Perhaps Romer’s investigation actually signals a shift toward such a policy. If so, this is a very good thing. If only we had done this, say, thirty years ago.