What exactly is “gentrification”? How should we deal with it?

Nov 26, JDN 2458083

“Gentrification” is a word that is used in a variety of mutually-inconsistent ways. If you compare the way social scientists use it to the way journalists use it, for example, they are almost completely orthogonal.

The word “gentrification” is meant to invoke the concept of a feudal gentry—a hereditary landed class that extracts rents from the rest of the population while contributing little or nothing themselves.

If indeed that is what we are talking about, then obviously this is bad. Moreover, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; there are some remarkably strong vestiges of feudalism in the developed world, even in the United States where we never formally had a tradition of feudal titles. There really is a significant portion of the world’s wealth held by a handful of billionaire landowner families.

But usually when people say “gentrification” they mean something much broader. Almost any kind of increase in urban real estate prices gets characterized as “gentrification” by at least somebody, and herein lies the problem.

In fact, the kind of change that is most likely to get characterized as “gentrification” isn’t even the rising real estate prices we should be most worried about. People aren’t concerned when the prices of suburban homes double in 20 years. You might think that things that are already too expensive getting more expensive would be the main concern, but on the contrary, people are most likely to cry “gentrification” when housing prices rise in poor areas where housing is cheap.

One of the most common fears about gentrification is that it will displace local residents. In fact, the best quasi-experimental studies show little or no displacement effect. It’s actually mainly middle-class urbanites who get displaced by rising rents. Poor people typically own their homes, and actually benefit from rising housing prices. Young upwardly-mobile middle-class people move to cities to rent apartments near where they work, and tend to assume that’s how everyone lives, but it’s not. Rising rents in a city are far more likely to push out its grad students than they are poor families that have lived there for generations. Part of why displacement does not occur may be because of policies specifically implemented to fight it, such as subsidized housing and rent control. If that’s so, let’s keep on subsidizing housing (though rent control will always be a bad idea).

Nor is gentrification actually a very widespread phenomenon. The majority of poor neighborhoods remain poor indefinitely. In most studies, only about 30% of neighborhoods classified as “gentrifiable” actually end up “gentrifying”. Less than 10% of the neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 had low poverty rates in 2010.

Most people think gentrification reduces crime, but in the short run the opposite is the case. Robbery and larceny are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Criminals are already there, and suddenly they get much more valuable targets to steal from, so they do.

There is also a general perception that gentrification involves White people pushing Black people out, but this is also an overly simplistic view. First of all, a lot of gentrification is led by upwardly-mobile Black and Latino people. Black people who live in gentrified neighborhoods seem to be better off than Black people who live in non-gentrified neighborhoods; though selection bias may contribute to this effect, it can’t be all that strong, or we’d observe a much stronger displacement effect. Moreover, some studies have found that gentrification actually tends to increase the racial diversity of neighborhoods, and may actually help fight urban self-segregation, though it does also tend to increase racial polarization by forcing racial mixing.

What should we conclude from all this? I think the right conclusion is we are asking the wrong question.

Rising housing prices in poor areas aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, and policies designed specifically to increase or decrease housing prices are likely to have harmful side effects. What we need to be focusing on is not houses or neighborhoods but people. Poverty is definitely a problem, for sure. Therefore we should be fighting poverty, not “gentrification”. Directly transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and then let the housing market fall where it may.

There is still some role for government in urban planning more generally, regarding things like disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and transit systems. It may even be worthwhile to design regulations or incentives that directly combat racial segregation at the neighborhood level, for, as the Schelling Segregation Model shows, it doesn’t take a large amount of discriminatory preference to have a large impact on socioeconomic outcomes. But don’t waste effort fighting “gentrification”; directly design policies that will incentivize desegregation.

Rising rent as a proportion of housing prices is still bad, and the fundamental distortions in our mortgage system that prevent people from buying houses are a huge problem. But rising housing prices are most likely to be harmful in rich neighborhoods, where housing is already overpriced; in poor neighborhoods where housing is cheap, rising prices might well be a good thing.
In fact, I have a proposal to rapidly raise homeownership across the United States, which is almost guaranteed to work, directly corrects an enormous distortion in financial markets, and would cost about as much as the mortgage interest deduction (which should probably be eliminated, as most economists agree). Give each US adult a one-time grant voucher which gives them $40,000 that can only be spent as a down payment on purchasing a home. Each time someone turns 18, they get a voucher. You only get one over your lifetime, so use it wisely (otherwise the policy could become extremely expensive); but this is an immediate direct transfer of wealth that also reduces your credit constraint. I know I for one would be house-hunting right now if I were offered such a voucher. The mortgage interest deduction means nothing to me, because I can’t afford a down payment. Where the mortgage interest deduction is regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, this policy gives everyone the same amount, like a basic income.

In the short run, this policy would probably be expensive, as we’d have to pay out a large number of vouchers at once; but with our current long-run demographic trends, the amortized cost is basically the same as the mortgage interest deduction. And the US government especially should care about the long-run amortized cost, as it is an institution that has lasted over 200 years without ever missing a payment and can currently borrow at negative real interest rates.

How rich are we, really?

Oct 29, JDN 2458056

The most commonly-used measure of a nation’s wealth is its per-capita GDP, which is simply a total of all spending in a country divided by its population. More recently we adjust for purchasing power, giving us GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP).

By this measure, the United States always does well. At most a dozen countries are above us, most of them by a small amount, and all of them are quite small countries. (For fundamental statistical reasons, we should expect both the highest and lowest average incomes to be in the smallest countries.)

But this is only half the story: It tells us how much income a country has, but not how that income is distributed. We should adjust for inequality.

How can we do this? I have devised a method that uses the marginal utility of wealth plus a measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient to work out an estimate of the average utility, instead of the average income.

I then convert back into a dollar figure. This figure is the income everyone would need to have under perfect equality, in order to give the same real welfare as the current system. That is, if we could redistribute wealth in such a way to raise everyone above this value up to it, and lower everyone above this value down to it, the total welfare of the country would not change. This provides a well-founded ranking of which country’s people are actually better off overall, accounting for both overall income and the distribution of that income.

The estimate is sensitive to the precise form I use for marginal utility, so I’ll show you comparisons for three different cases.

The “conservative” estimate uses a risk aversion parameter of 1, which means that utility is logarithmic in income. The real value of a dollar is inversely proportional to the number of dollars you already have.

The medium estimate uses a risk aversion parameter of 2, which means that the real value of a dollar is inversely proportional to the square of the number of dollars you already have.

And then the “liberal” estimate uses a risk aversion parameter of 3, which means that the real value of a dollar is inversely proportional to the cube of the number of dollars you already have.

I’ll compare ten countries, which I think are broadly representative of classes of countries in the world today.

The United States, the world hegemon which needs no introduction.

China, rising world superpower and world’s most populous country.

India, world’s largest democracy and developing economy with a long way to go.

Norway, as representative of the Scandinavian social democracies.

Germany, as representative of continental Europe.

Russia, as representative of the Soviet Union and the Second World bloc.

Saudi Arabia, as representative of the Middle East petrostates.

Botswana, as representative of African developing economies.

Zimbabwe, as representative of failed Sub-Saharan African states.

Brazil, as representative of Latin American developing economies.
The ordering of these countries by GDP per-capita PPP is probably not too surprising:

  1. Norway 69,249
  2. United States 57,436
  3. Saudi Arabia 55,158
  4. Germany 48,111
  5. Russia 26,490
  6. Botswana 17,042
  7. China 15,399
  8. Brazil 15,242
  9. India 6,616
  10. Zimbabwe 1,970

Norway is clearly the richest, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Germany are quite close, Russia is toward the upper end, Botswana, China, and Brazil are close together in the middle, and then India and especially Zimbabwe are extremely poor.

But now let’s take a look at the inequality in each country, as measured by the Gini coefficient (which ranges from 0, perfect equality, to 1, total inequality).

  1. Botswana 0.605
  2. Zimbabwe 0.501
  3. Brazil 0.484
  4. United States 0.461
  5. Saudi Arabia 0.459
  6. China 0.422
  7. Russia 0.416
  8. India 0.351
  9. Germany 0.301
  10. Norway 0.259

The US remains (alarmingly) close to Saudi Arabia by this measure. Most of the countries are between 40 and 50. But Botswana is astonishingly unequal, while Germany and Norway are much more equal.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the inequality-adjusted per-capita GDP. First, the conservative estimate, with a parameter of 1:

  1. Norway 58700
  2. United States 42246
  3. Saudi Arabia 40632
  4. Germany 39653
  5. Russia 20488
  6. China 11660
  7. Botswana 11138
  8. Brazil 11015
  9. India 5269
  10. Zimbabwe 1405

So far, ordering of nations is almost the same compared to what we got with just per-capita GDP. But notice how Germany has moved up closer to the US and Botswana actually fallen behind China.

Now let’s try a parameter of 2, which I think is the closest to the truth:

  1. Norway 49758
  2. Germany 32683
  3. United States 31073
  4. Saudi Arabia 29931
  5. Russia 15581
  6. China 8829
  7. Brazil 7961
  8. Botswana 7280
  9. India 4197
  10. Zimbabwe 1002

Now we have seen some movement. Norway remains solidly on top, but Germany has overtaken the United States and Botswana has fallen behind not only China, but also Brazil. Russia remains in the middle, and India and Zimbawbe remain on the bottom.

Finally, let’s try a parameter of 3.

  1. Norway 42179
  2. Germany 26937
  3. United States 22855
  4. Saudi Arabia 22049
  5. Russia 11849
  6. China 6685
  7. Brazil 5753
  8. Botswana 4758
  9. India 3343
  10. Zimbabwe 715

Norway has now pulled far and away ahead of everyone else. Germany is substantially above the United States. China has pulled away from Brazil, and Botswana has fallen almost all the way to the level of India. Zimbabwe, as always, is at the very bottom.

Let’s compare this to another measure of national well-being, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (which goes from 0, the worst, to 1 the best). This index combines education, public health, and income, and adjusts for inequality. It seems to be a fairly good measure of well-being, but it’s very difficult to compile data for, so a lot of countries are missing (including Saudi Arabia); plus the precise weightings on everything are very ad hoc.

  1. Norway 0.898
  2. Germany 0.859
  3. United States 0.796
  4. Russia 0.725
  5. China 0.543
  6. Brazil 0.531
  7. India 0.435
  8. Botswana 0.433
  9. Zimbabwe 0.371

Other than putting India above Botswana, this ordering is the same as what we get from my (much easier to calculate and theoretically more well-founded) index with either a parameter of 2 or 3.

What’s more, my index can be directly interpreted: The average standard of living in the US is as if everyone were making $31,073 per year. What exactly is an IHDI index of 0.796 supposed to mean? We’re… 79.6% of the way to the best possible country?

In any case, there’s a straightforward (if not terribly surprising) policy implication here: Inequality is a big problem.

In particular, inequality in the US is clearly too high. Despite an overall income that is very high, almost 18 log points higher than Germany, our overall standard of living is actually about 5 log points lower due to our higher level of inequality. While our average income is only 19 log points lower than Norway, our actual standard of living is 47 log points lower.

Inequality in Botswana also means that their recent astonishing economic growth is not quite as impressive as it at first appeared. Many people are being left behind. While in raw income they appear to be 10 log points ahead of China and only 121 log points behind the US, once you adjust for their very high inequality they are 19 log points behind China, and 145 log points behind the US.

Of course, some things don’t change. Norway is still on top, and Zimbabwe is still on the bottom.

This is one of the worst wildfire seasons in American history. But it won’t be for long.

Oct 22, JDN 2458049

At least 38 people have now been killed by the wildfires that are still ongoing in California; in addition, 5700 buildings have been destroyed and 190,000 acres of land burned. The State of California keeps an updated map of all the fires that are ongoing and how well-controlled they are; it’s not a pretty sight.

While the particular details are extreme, this is not an isolated incident. This year alone, wildfires have destroyed over 8 million acres of land in the US. In 2015, that figure was 10 million acres.

Property damage for this year’s wildfires in California is estimated at over $65 billion. That’s more than what Trump recently added to the military budget, and getting close to our total spending on food stamps.

There is a very clear upward trend in the scale and intensity of wildfires just over the last 50 years, and the obvious explanation is climate change. As climate change gets worse, these numbers are projected to increase between 30% and 50% by the 2040s. We still haven’t broken the record of fire damage in 1910, but as the upward trend continues we might soon enough.

It’s important to keep the death tolls in perspective; much as with hurricanes, our evacuation protocols and first-response agencies do their jobs very well, and as a result we’ve been averaging only about 10 wildfire deaths per year over the whole United States for the last century. In a country of over 300 million people, that’s really an impressively small number. That number has also been trending upward, however, so we shouldn’t get complacent.

Climate change isn’t the only reason these fires are especially damaging. It also matters where you build houses. We have been expanding our urban sprawl into fire-prone zones, and that is putting a lot of people in danger. Since 1990, over 60% of new homes were built in “wildland-urban interface areas” that are at higher risk.

Why are we doing this? Because housing prices in urban centers are too expensive for people to live there, but that is where most of the jobs are. So people have little choice but to live in exurbs and suburbs closer to the areas where fires are worst. That’s right: The fires are destroying homes and killing people because the rent is too damn high.

We need to find a solution to this problem of soaring housing prices. And since housing is such a huge proportion of our total expenditure—we spend more on housing than we do on all government spending combined—this would have an enormous impact on our entire economy. If you compare the income of a typical American today to most of the world’s population, or even to a typical American a century ago, we should feel extremely rich, but we don’t—largely because we spend so much of it just on keeping a roof over our heads.

Real estate is also a major driver of economic inequality. Wealth inequality is highest in urban centers where homeownership is rare. The large wealth gaps between White and non-White Americans can be in large part attributed to policies that made homeownership much more difficult for non-White people. Housing value inequality and overall wealth inequality are very strongly correlated. The high inequality in housing prices is making it far more difficult for people to move from poor regions to rich regions, holding back one of the best means we had for achieving more equal incomes.

Moreover, the rise in capital income share since the 1970s is driven almost entirely by real estate, rather than actual physical capital. The top 10% richest housing communities constitute over 52% of the total housing wealth in the US.

There is a lot of debate about what exactly causes these rising housing prices. No doubt, there are many factors contributing, from migration patterns to zoning regulations to income inequality in general. In a later post, I’ll get into why I think many of the people who think they are fighting the problem are actually making it worse, and suggest some ideas for what they should be doing instead.

Think of this as a moral recession

August 27, JDN 2457993

The Great Depression was, without doubt, the worst macroeconomic event of the last 200 years. Over 30 million people became unemployed. Unemployment exceeded 20%. Standard of living fell by as much as a third in the United States. Political unrest spread across the world, and the collapsing government of Germany ultimately became the Third Reich and triggered the Second World War If we ignore the world war, however, the effect on mortality rates was surprisingly small. (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”)

And yet, how long do you suppose it took for economic growth to repair the damage? 80 years? 50 years? 30 years? 20 years? Try ten to fifteen. By 1940, the US, US, Germany, and Japan all had a per-capita GDP at least as high as in 1930. By 1945, every country in Europe had a per-capita GDP at least as high as they did before the Great Depression.

The moral of this story is this: Recessions are bad, and can have far-reaching consequences; but ultimately what really matters in the long run is growth.

Assuming the same growth otherwise, a country that had a recession as large as the Great Depression would be about 70% as rich as one that didn’t.

But over 100 years, a country that experienced 3% growth instead of 2% growth would be over two and a half times richer.

Therefore, in terms of standard of living only, if you were given the choice between having a Great Depression but otherwise growing at 3%, and having no recessions but growing at 2%, your grandchildren will be better off if you chose the former. (Of course, given the possibility of political unrest or even war, the depression could very well end up worse.)

With that in mind, I want you to think of the last few years—and especially the last few months—as a moral recession. Donald Trump being President of the United States is clearly a step backward for human civilization, and it seems to have breathed new life into some of the worst ideologies our society has ever harbored, from extreme misogyny, homophobia, right-wing nationalism, and White supremacism to outright Neo-Nazism. When one of the central debates in our public discourse is what level of violence is justifiable against Nazis under what circumstances, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

But much as recessions are overwhelmed in the long run by economic growth, there is reason to be confident that this moral backslide is temporary and will be similarly overwhelmed by humanity’s long-run moral progress.

What moral progress, you ask? Let’s remind ourselves.

Just 100 years ago, women could not vote in the United States.

160 years ago, slavery was legal in 15 US states.

Just 3 years ago, same-sex marriage was illegal in 14 US states. Yes, you read that number correctly. I said three. There are gay couples graduating high school and getting married now who as freshmen didn’t think they would be allowed to get married.

That’s just the United States. What about the rest of the world?

100 years ago, almost all of the world’s countries were dictatorships. Today, half of the world’s countries are democracies. Indeed, thanks to India, the majority of the world’s population now lives under democracy.

35 years ago, the Soviet Union still ruled most of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia with an iron fist (or should I say “curtain”?).

30 years ago, the number of human beings in extreme poverty—note I said number, not just rate; the world population was two-thirds what it is today—was twice as large as it is today.

Over the last 65 years, the global death rate due to war has fallen from 250 per million to just 10 per million.

The global literacy rate has risen from 40% to 80% in just 50 years.

World life expectancy has increased by 6 years in just the last 20 years.

We are living in a golden age. Do not forget that.

Indeed, if there is anything that could destroy all these astonishing achievements, I think it would be our failure to appreciate them.

If you listen to what these Neo-Nazi White supremacists say about their grievances, they sound like the spoiled children of millionaires (I mean, they elected one President, after all). They are outraged because they only get 90% of what they want instead of 100%—or even outraged not because they didn’t get what they wanted but because someone else they don’t know also did.

If you listen to the far left, their complaints don’t make much more sense. If you didn’t actually know any statistics, you’d think that life is just as bad for Black people in America today as it was under Jim Crow or even slavery. Well, it’s not even close. I’m not saying racism is gone; it’s definitely still here. But the civil rights movement has made absolutely enormous strides, from banning school segregation and housing redlining to reforming prison sentences and instituting affirmative action programs. Simply the fact that “racist” is now widely considered a terrible thing to be is a major accomplishment in itself. A typical Black person today, despite having only about 60% of the income of a typical White person, is still richer than a typical White person was just 50 years ago. While the 71% high school completion rate Black people currently have may not sound great, it’s much higher than the 50% rate that the whole US population had as recently as 1950.

Yes, there are some things that aren’t going very well right now. The two that I think are most important are climate change and income inequality. As both the global mean temperature anomaly and the world top 1% income share continue to rise, millions of people will suffer and die needlessly from diseases of poverty and natural disasters.

And of course if Neo-Nazis manage to take hold of the US government and try to repeat the Third Reich, that could be literally the worst thing that ever happened. If it triggered a nuclear war, it unquestionably would be literally the worst thing that ever happened. Both these events are unlikely—but not nearly as unlikely as they should be. (Five Thirty Eight interviewed several nuclear experts who estimated a probability of imminent nuclear war at a horrifying five percent.) So I certainly don’t want to make anyone complacent about these very grave problems.

But I worry also that we go too far the other direction, and fail to celebrate the truly amazing progress humanity has made thus far. We hear so often that we are treading water, getting nowhere, or even falling backward, that we begin to feel as though the fight for moral progress is utterly hopeless. If all these centuries of fighting for justice really had gotten us nowhere, the only sensible thing to do at this point would be to give up. But on the contrary, we have made enormous progress in an incredibly short period of time. We are on the verge of finally winning this fight. The last thing we want to do now is give up.

Several of the world’s largest banks are known to have committed large-scale fraud. Why have we done so little about it?

July 16, JDN 2457951

In 2014, JPMorgan Chase paid a settlement of $614 million for fraudulent mortgage lending contributing to the crisis; but this was spare change compared to the $16.5 billion Bank of America paid in settlements for their fradulent mortgages.

In 2015, Citibank paid $700 million in restitution and $35 million in penalties for fraudulent advertising of “payment protection” services.

In 2016, Wells Fargo paid $190 in settlements for defrauding their customers with fake accounts.

Even PayPal has paid $25 million in settlements over abuses of their “PayPal Credit” system.
In 2016, Goldman Sachs paid $5.1 billion in settlements over their fraudulent sales of mortgage-backed securities.
But the worst offender of course is HSBC, which has paid $2.5 billion in settlements over fraud, as well as $1.9 billion in settlements for laundering money for terrorists. The US Justice Department has kept their money-laundering protections classified because they’re so bad that simply revealing them to the public could result in vast amounts of criminal abuse.
These are some of the world’s largest banks. JPMorgan Chase alone owns 8.0% of all investment banking worldwide; Goldman Sachs owns 6.6%; Citi owns 4.9%; Wells Fargo 2.5%; and HSBC 1.8%. That means that between them, these five corporations—all proven to have engaged in large-scale fraud—own almost one-fourth of all the world’s investment banking assets.

What shocks me the most about this is that hardly anyone seems to care. It’s seen as “normal”, as “business as usual” that a quarter of the world’s investment banking system is owned by white-collar criminals. When the issue is even brought up, often the complaint seems to be that the government is being somehow overzealous. The Economist even went so far as to characterize the prosecution of Wall Street fraud as a “shakedown”. Apparently the idea that our world’s most profitable companies shouldn’t be able to launder money for terrorists is just ridiculous. These are rich people; you expect them to follow rules? What is this, some kind of democracy?

Is this just always how it has been? Has corruption always been so thoroughly infused with finance that we don’t even know how to separate them? Has the oligarchy of the top 0.01% become so strong that we can’t even bring ourselves to challenge them when they commit literal treason? For, in case you’ve forgotten, that is what money-laundering for terrorists is: HSBC gave aid and comfort to the enemies of the free world. Like “freedom” and “terrorism”, the word “treason” has been so overused that we begin to forget its meaning; but one of the groups that HSBC gladly loaned money to is an organization that has financed Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. These are people that American and British soldiers have died fighting against, and when a British bank was found colluding with them, the penalty was… a few weeks of profits, no personal responsibility, and not a single day of prison time. The settlement was in fact less than the profits gained from the criminal enterprise, so this wasn’t even a fine; it was a tax. Our response to treason was to impose a tax.

And this of course was not the result of some newfound leniency in American government in general. No, we are still the nation that imprisons 700 out of every 100,000 people, the nation with more prisoners than any other nation on Earth. Our police officers still kill young Black men with impunity, including at least three dozen unarmed Black men every year, many of them for no apparent reason at all. (The precise number is still unknown, as the police refuse to keep an official database of all the citizens they kill.) Decades of “law and order” politicians promising to stop the “rising crime” (that is actually falling) have made the United States very close to a police state, especially in poor neighborhoods that are primarily inhabited by Black and Hispanic people. We don’t even have an especially high crime rate, except for gun homicides (and that because we have so many guns, also more than any other nation on Earth). We are, if anything, an especially vindictive society, cruel, unforgiving, and violent towards those we perceive as transgressors.

Except, that is, when the criminals are rich. Even the racial biases seem to go away in such circumstances; there is no reasonable doubt as to the guilt of O.J. Simpson or Bill Cosby, but Simpson only ended up in prison years later on a completely unrelated offense, and after Cosby’s mistrial it’s unclear if he’ll ever see any prison time. I don’t see how either man could have been less punished for his crimes had he been White; but can anyone seriously doubt that both men would be punished more had they not been rich?

I do not think that capitalism is an irredeemable system. I think that, in themselves, free markets are very useful, and we should not remove or restrict them unnecessarily. But capitalism isn’t supposed to be a system where the rich can do whatever they want and the poor have to accept it. Capitalism is supposed to be a system where everyone is free to do as they choose, unless they are harming others—and the rules are supposed to be the same for everyone. A free market is not one where you can buy the right to take away other people’s freedom.

Is this just some utopian idealism? It would surely be utopian to imagine a world where fraud never happens, that much is true. Someone, somewhere, will always be defrauding someone else. But a world where fraud is punished most of the time? Where our most powerful institutions are still subject to the basic rule of law? Is that a pipe dream as well?

What we lose by aggregating

Jun 25, JDN 2457930

One of the central premises of current neoclassical macroeconomics is the representative agent: Rather than trying to keep track of all the thousands of firms, millions of people, and billions of goods and in a national economy, we aggregate everything up into a single worker/consumer and a single firm producing and consuming a single commodity.

This sometimes goes under the baffling misnomer of microfoundations, which would seem to suggest that it carries detailed information about the microeconomic behavior underlying it; in fact what this means is that the large-scale behavior is determined by some sort of (perfectly) rational optimization process as if there were just one person running the entire economy optimally.

First of all, let me say that some degree of aggregation is obviously necessary. Literally keeping track of every single transaction by every single person in an entire economy would require absurd amounts of data and calculation. We might have enough computing power to theoretically try this nowadays, but then again we might not—and in any case such a model would very rapidly lose sight of the forest for the trees.

But it is also clearly possible to aggregate too much, and most economists don’t seem to appreciate this. They cite a couple of famous theorems (like the Gorman Aggregation Theorem) involving perfectly-competitive firms and perfectly-rational identical consumers that offer a thin veneer of justification for aggregating everything into one, and then go on with their work as if this meant everything were fine.

What’s wrong with such an approach?

Well, first of all, a representative agent model can’t talk about inequality at all. It’s not even that a representative agent model says inequality is good, or not a problem; it lacks the capacity to even formulate the concept. Trying to talk about income or wealth inequality in a representative agent model would be like trying to decide whether your left hand is richer than your right hand.

It’s also nearly impossible to talk about poverty in a representative agent model; the best you can do is talk about a country’s overall level of development, and assume (not without reason) that a country with a per-capita GDP of $1,000 probably has a lot more poverty than a country with a per-capita GDP of $50,000. But two countries with the same per-capita GDP can have very different poverty rates—and indeed, the cynic in me wonders if the reason we’re reluctant to use inequality-adjusted measures of development is precisely that many American economists fear where this might put the US in the rankings. The Human Development Index was a step in the right direction because it includes things other than money (and as a result Saudi Arabia looks much worse and Cuba much better), but it still aggregates and averages everything, so as long as your rich people are doing well enough they can compensate for how badly your poor people are doing.

Nor can you talk about oligopoly in a representative agent model, as there is always only one firm, which for some reason chooses to act as if it were facing competition instead of rationally behaving as a monopoly. (This is not quite as nonsensical as it sounds, as the aggregation actually does kind of work if there truly are so many firms that they are all forced down to zero profit by fierce competition—but then again, what market is actually like that?) There is no market share, no market power; all are at the mercy of the One True Price.

You can still talk about externalities, sort of; but in order to do so you have to set up this weird doublethink phenomenon where the representative consumer keeps polluting their backyard and then can’t figure out why their backyard is so darn polluted. (I suppose humans do seem to behave like that sometimes; but wait, I thought you believed people were rational?) I think this probably confuses many an undergrad, in fact; the models we teach them about externalities generally use this baffling assumption that people consider one set of costs when making their decisions and then bear a different set of costs from the outcome. If you can conceptualize the idea that we’re aggregating across people and thinking “as if” there were a representative agent, you can ultimately make sense of this; but I think a lot of students get really confused by it.

Indeed, what can you talk about with a representative agent model? Economic growth and business cycles. That’s… about it. These are not minor issues, of course; indeed, as Robert Lucas famously said:

The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these [on economic growth] are simply staggering: once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

I certainly do think that studying economic growth and business cycles should be among the top priorities of macroeconomics. But then, I also think that poverty and inequality should be among the top priorities, and they haven’t been—perhaps because the obsession with representative agent models make that basically impossible.

I want to be constructive here; I appreciate that aggregating makes things much easier. So what could we do to include some heterogeneity without too much cost in complexity?

Here’s one: How about we have p firms, making q types of goods, sold to n consumers? If you want you can start by setting all these numbers equal to 2; simply going from 1 to 2 has an enormous effect, as it allows you to at least say something about inequality. Getting them as high as 100 or even 1000 still shouldn’t be a problem for computing the model on an ordinary laptop. (There are “econophysicists” who like to use these sorts of agent-based models, but so far very few economists take them seriously. Partly that is justified by their lack of foundational knowledge in economics—the arrogance of physicists taking on a new field is legendary—but partly it is also interdepartmental turf war, as economists don’t like the idea of physicists treading on their sacred ground.) One thing that really baffles me about this is that economists routinely use computers to solve models that can’t be calculated by hand, but it never seems to occur to them that they could have started at the beginning planning to make the model solvable only by computer, and that would spare them from making the sort of heroic assumptions they are accustomed to making—assumptions that only made sense when they were used to make a model solvable that otherwise wouldn’t be.

You could also assign a probability distribution over incomes; that can get messy quickly, but we actually are fortunate that the constant relative risk aversion utility function and the Pareto distribution over incomes seem to fit the data quite well—as the product of those two things is integrable by hand. As long as you can model how your policy affects this distribution without making that integral impossible (which is surprisingly tricky), you can aggregate over utility instead of over income, which is a lot more reasonable as a measure of welfare.

And really I’m only scratching the surface here. There are a vast array of possible new approaches that would allow us to extend macroeconomic models to cover heterogeneity; the real problem is an apparent lack of will in the community to make such an attempt. Most economists still seem very happy with representative agent models, and reluctant to consider anything else—often arguing, in fact, that anything else would make the model less microfounded when plainly the opposite is the case.


What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”