Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

It’s not your imagination: Housing is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Inflation adjusted into 2000 dollars, the median price of a house has risen from $30,600 in 1940 to $119,600 today. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s an increase from $44,000 to $173,000.

Things are particularly bad here in California, where the median price of a new home is $517,000—and especially in the Bay Area, where the median price is $838,000. Just two years ago, people were already freaking out that the median home price in the Bay Area had hit $661,000—and now it has risen 27% since then.

The rent is too damn high, but lately rent has actually not been rising as fast as housing prices. It may be that they’ve just gotten as high as they can get; in New York City rent is stable, and in San Francisco it’s actually declining—but in both cases it’s over $4,000 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment. The US still has the highest rent-to-price ratio in the world; at 11.2%, you should be able to buy a house on a 15-year mortgage for what we currently pay in rent near city centers.

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

It’s a problem in Canada: Housing in the Toronto area recently skyrocketed in price, with the mean price of a detached home now over $974,000 CAD, about $722,000 USD.

It’s a problem in the UK: The average price of a home in the UK is now over 214,000 pounds, or $274,000 (the pound is pretty weak after Brexit). In London in particular, the average home now costs nine years of the average wage.

It’s even a problem in China: An average 1000-square-foot apartment (that’s not very big!) in Shanghai now sells for 5 million yuan, which is about $725,000.

Worldwide, the US actually has a relatively low housing price to income ratio, because our incomes are so high. Venezuela’s economy is in such a terrible state that it is literally impossible for the average person to buy the average home, but in countries as diverse as France, Taiwan, and Peru, the average home still costs more than 10 years of the average household income.

Why is this happening? Why is housing so expensive, and getting worse all the time?

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

The most obvious and fundamental reason is basic supply and demand. Demand for housing in major cities is rapidly rising, and supply of housing just isn’t keeping up.

Indeed, in California, the rate of new housing construction has fallen in recent years, even as we’ve had rapid population growth and skyrocketing housing prices. This is probably the number one reason why our housing here is so expensive.

But that raises its own questions: why aren’t more houses getting built? The market is supposed to correct for this sort of thing. Higher prices incentivize more construction, so prices get brought back down.

I think with housing in particular, we have a fundamental problem with that mechanism, and it is this: The people who make the policy don’t want the prices to come down.

No, I’m not talking about mayors and city councils, though they do like their property tax revenue. I’m talking about homeowners. People who go to homeowners’ association meetings and complain that someone else’s lopsided deck or un-weeded garden is “lowering property values”. People who join NIMBY political campaigns to stop new development, prevent the construction of taller buildings, or even stop the installation of new electrical substations. People who already got theirs and don’t care about anyone else.

Homeowners have an enormous influence in local politics, and it is by local politics that most of these decisions about zoning and development are made. They make all kinds of excuses about “preserving the community” and “the feel of the city”, but when you get right down to it, these people care more about preserving their own home equity than they do about making other people homeless.

In some cases, people may be so fundamentally confused that they think new development actually somehow causes higher housing prices, and so they try to fight development in a vain effort to stop rising housing prices and only end up making things worse. It’s also very common for people to support rent control policies in an effort to keep housing affordable—and economists of all political stripes are in almost total consensus that rent control only serves to restrict supply, increase inequality, and make housing prices even worse. As one might expect, the stricter the rent control, the worse this effect is. Some mild forms of rent control might be justifiable in particularly monopolistic markets, but in general it’s not a good long-term solution. Rent control forces rationing, and often the rationing is not in favor of who needs it the most but who is the most well-connected. The people who benefit most from rent control are usually of higher income than the average for the city.

On the other hand, removing rent control can cause a spike in prices, and make things worse in the short run, before there is time for new construction to increase the supply of housing. Also, many economists assume in their models that tenants who get forced out by the higher rents would get compensated for it, which is not at all how the real world works. It’s also unclear exactly how large the effect sizes are, because the empirical studies get quite mixed results. Still, rent control is a bad idea. Don’t take it from me, take it from Paul Krugman.

It’s also common to blame foreign investors—because humans are tribal, and blaming foreigners is always popular—even though that makes no economic sense. Investors are buying your houses because the prices keep rising. It’s possible that there could be some sort of speculative bubble, but that’s actually harder to sustain in housing than it is in most other assets, precisely because houses are immobile and expensive. Speculative bubbles in gold happen all the time (indeed, perhaps literally all the time, as the price of gold has never fallen to its real fundamental value in all of human history), but gold is a tradeable, transportable, fungible commodity that can be bought in arbitrarily small quantities. (Because it’s an element, you’re literally only limited to the atomic level!)

Moreover, it isn’t just supply and demand at work here. Fluctuations in economic growth have strong effects on housing prices—and vice-versa. There are monetary policy effects, particularly in a liquidity trap; lower interest rates combined with low inflation create a perfect storm for higher housing prices.

Overall economic inequality is a major contributor to steep housing prices, as well as the segregation of housing across racial and economic lines. And as the rate of return on productive capital continues to decrease while the rate of return on real estate does not, more and more of our wealth concentration is going to be in the form of higher housing prices—making the whole problem self-reinforcing.

People also seem really ambivalent about whether they want housing prices to be low or high. In one breath they’ll bemoan the lack of affordable housing, and in another they’ll talk about “protecting property values”. Even the IMF called the increase in housing prices after the Second Depression a “recovery”. Is it really so hard to understand that higher prices mean higher prices?

But we think of housing as two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it’s a durable consumption good, like a car or a refrigerator—something you buy because it’s useful, and keep around to use for a long time. On the other hand, it’s a financial asset—a store of value for your savings and a potential source of income. When you’re thinking of it as a consumption good, you want it to be “affordable”; when you’re thinking of it as an asset, you want to “protect its value”. But it’s the same house with the same price. You can’t do both of those things at once, and clearly, as a society—perhaps as a civilization—we have been tilting way too far in the “asset” direction.

I get it: Financial assets that grow over time have the allure of easy money. The stock market, the derivatives market, even the lottery and Las Vegas, all have this tantalizing property that they seem to give you money for nothing. They are like the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone in days of yore.

But they are just as much a chimera as the Philosopher’s Stone itself. (Also, if anyone had found the Philosopher’s Stone, the glut of gold would have triggered massive inflation, not unlike what happened in Spain in the 16th century.) Any money you get from simply owning an asset or placing a bet is money that had to come from somewhere else. In the case of the stock market, that “somewhere else” is the profits of the corporations you bought, and if you did actually contribute to the investment of those corporations there’s nothing wrong with you getting a proportional share of those profits. But most people aren’t thinking in those terms when they buy stocks, and once you get all the way to sophisticated derivatives you’re basically in full gambling territory. Every option that’s in the money is another option that’s out of the money. Every interest rate swap that turns a profit is another one that bears a loss.

And when it comes to housing, if you magically gain equity from rising property values, where is that money coming from? It’s coming from people desperately struggling to afford to live in your city, people giving up 40%, 50%, even 60% of their disposable income just for the chance to leave in a tiny apartment because they want to be in your city that badly. It’s coming from people who started that way, lost their job, and ended up homeless because they couldn’t sustain the payments anymore. All that easy money is coming from hard-working young people trying to hold themselves out of poverty.

It’s different if your home gains value because you actually did something to make it better—renovations, additions, landscaping. Even then I think these things are sort of overrated; but they do constitute a real economic benefit to the people who live there. But if your home rises in value because zoning regulations and protesting homeowners stop the construction of new high-rises, that’s very much still on the backs of struggling young people.

We need to stop thinking houses as assets that are supposed to earn a return, and instead think of them as consumption goods that provide benefits to people. If you want a return, buy stocks and bonds. When you’re buying a house, you should be buying a house—not some dream of making money for nothing as housing prices rise forever. Because they can’t—sooner or later, the bubble will break—and even if they could, it would be terrible for everyone who didn’t get into the market soon enough.

Wrong answers are better than no answer

Nov 6, JDN 2457699

I’ve been hearing some disturbing sentiments from some surprising places lately, things like “Economics is not a science, it’s just an extension of politics” and “There’s no such thing as a true model”. I’ve now met multiple economists who speak this way, who seem to be some sort of “subjectivists” or “anti-realists” (those links are to explanations of moral subjectivism and anti-realism, which are also mistaken, but in a much less obvious way, and are far more common views to express). It is possible to read most of the individual statements in a non-subjectivist way, but in the context of all of them together, it really gives me the general impression that many of these economists… don’t believe in economics. (Nor do they even believe in believing it, or they’d put up a better show.)

I think what has happened is that in the wake of the Second Depression, economists have had a sort of “crisis of faith”. The models we thought were right were wrong, so we may as well give up; there’s no such thing as a true model. The science of economics failed, so maybe economics was never a science at all.

Never really thought I’d be in this position, but in such circumstances actually feel strongly inclined to defend neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics is wrong; but subjectivism is not even wrong.

If a model is wrong, you can fix it. You can make it right, or at least less wrong. But if you give up on modeling altogether, your theory avoids being disproven only by making itself totally detached from reality. I can’t prove you wrong, but only because you’ve given up on the whole idea of being right or wrong.

As Isaac Asimov wrote, “when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

What we might call “folk economics”, what most people seem to believe about economics, is like thinking the Earth is flat—it’s fundamentally wrong, but not so obviously inaccurate on an individual scale that it can’t be a useful approximation for your daily life. Neoclassical economics is like thinking the Earth is spherical—it’s almost right, but still wrong in some subtle but important ways. Thinking that economics isn’t a science is wronger than both of them put together.

The sense in which “there’s no such thing as a true model” is true is a trivial one: There’s no such thing as a perfect model, because by the time you included everything you’d just get back the world itself. But there are better and worse models, and some of our very best models (quantum mechanics, Darwinian evolution) are really good enough that I think it’s quite perverse not to call them simply true. Economics doesn’t have such models yet for more than a handful of phenomena—but we’re working on it (at least, I thought that’s what we were doing!).

Indeed, a key point I like to make about realism—in science, morality, or whatever—is that if you think something can be wrong, you must be a realist. In order for an idea to be wrong, there must be some objective reality to compare it to that it can fail to match. If everything is just subjective beliefs and sociopolitical pressures, there is no such thing as “wrong”, only “unpopular”. I’ve heard many people say things like “Well, that’s just your opinion; you could be wrong.” No, if it’s just my opinion, then I cannot possibly be wrong. So choose a lane! Either you think I’m wrong, or you think it’s just my opinion—but you can’t have it both ways.

Now, it’s clearly true in the real world that there is a lot of very bad and unscientific economics going on. The worst is surely the stuff that comes out of right-wing think-tanks that are paid almost explicitly to come up with particular results that are convenient for their right-wing funders. (As Krugman puts it, “there are liberal professional economists, conservative professional economists, and professional conservative economists.”) But there’s also a lot of really unscientific economics done without such direct and obvious financial incentives. Economists get blinded by their own ideology, they choose what topics to work on based on what will garner the most prestige, they use fundamentally defective statistical techniques because journals won’t publish them if they don’t.

But of course, the same is true of many other fields, particularly in social science. Sociologists also get blinded by their pet theories; psychologists also abuse statistics because the journals make them do it; political scientists are influenced by their funding sources; anthropologists also choose what to work on based on what’s prestigious in the field.

Moreover, natural sciences do this too. String theorists are (almost by definition) blinded by their favorite theory. Biochemists are manipulated by the financial pressures of the pharmaceutical industry. Neuroscientists publish all sorts of statistically nonsensical research. I’d be very surprised if even geologists were immune to the social norms of academia telling them to work on the most prestigious problems. If this is enough reason to abandon a field as a science, it is a reason to abandon science, full stop. That is what you are arguing for here.

And really, this should be fairly obvious, actually. Are workers and factories and televisions actual things that are actually here? Obviously they are. Therefore you can be right or wrong about how they interact. There is an obvious objective reality here that one can have more or less accurate beliefs about.

For socially-constructed phenomena like money, markets, and prices, this isn’t as obvious; if everyone stopped believing in the US Dollar, like Tinkerbell the US Dollar would cease to exist. But there does remain some objective reality (or if you like, intersubjective reality) here: I can be right or wrong about the price of a dishwasher or the exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

So, in order to abandon the possibility of scientifically accurate economics, you have to say that even though there is this obvious physical reality of workers and factories and televisions, we can’t actually study that scientifically, even when it sure looks like we’re studying it scientifically by performing careful observations, rigorous statistics, and even randomized controlled experiments. Even when I perform my detailed Bayesian analysis of my randomized controlled experiment, nope, that’s not science. It doesn’t count, for some reason.

The only at all principled way I can see you could justify such a thing is to say that once you start studying other humans you lose all possibility of scientific objectivity—but notice that by making such a claim you haven’t just thrown out psychology and economics, you’ve also thrown out anthropology and neuroscience. The statements “DNA evidence shows that all modern human beings descend from a common migration out of Africa” and “Human nerve conduction speed is approximately 300 meters per second” aren’t scientific? Then what in the world are they?

Or is it specifically behavioral sciences that bother you? Now perhaps you can leave out biological anthropology and basic neuroscience; there’s some cultural anthropology and behavioral neuroscience you have to still include, but maybe that’s a bullet you’re willing to bite. There is perhaps something intuitively appealing here: Since science is a human behavior, you can’t use science to study human behavior without an unresolvable infinite regress.

But there are still two very big problems with this idea.

First, you’ve got to explain how there can be this obvious objective reality of human behavior that is nonetheless somehow forever beyond our understanding. Even though people actually do things, and we can study those things using the usual tools of science, somehow we’re not really doing science, and we can never actually learn anything about how human beings behave.

Second, you’ve got to explain why we’ve done as well as we have. For some reason, people seem to have this impression that psychology and especially economics have been dismal failures, they’ve brought us nothing but nonsense and misery.

But where exactly do you think we got the lowest poverty rate in the history of the world? That just happened by magic, or by accident while we were doing other things? No, economists did that, on purpose—the UN Millennium Goals were designed, implemented, and evaluated by economists. Against staunch opposition from both ends of the political spectrum, we have managed to bring free trade to the world, and with it, some measure of prosperity.

The only other science I can think of that has been more successful at its core mission is biology; as XCKD pointed out, the biologists killed a Horseman of the Apocalypse while the physicists were busy making a new one. Congratulations on beating Pestilence, biologists; we economists think we finally have Famine on the ropes now. Hey political scientists, how is War going? Oh, not bad, actually? War deaths per capita are near their lowest levels in history? But clearly it would be foolhardy to think that economics and political science are actually sciences!

I can at least see why people might think psychology is a failure, because rates of diagnosis of mental illness keep rising higher and higher; but the key word there is diagnosis. People were already suffering from anxiety and depression across the globe; it’s just that nobody was giving them therapy or medication for it. Some people argue that all we’ve done is pathologize normal human experience—but this wildly underestimates the severity of many mental disorders. Wanting to end your own life for reasons you yourself cannot understand is not normal human experience being pathologized. (And the fact that 40,000 Americans commit suicide every year may make it common, but it does not make it normal. Is trying to keep people from dying of influenza “pathologizing normal human experience”? Well, suicide kills almost as many.) It’s possible there is some overdiagnosis; but there is also an awful lot of real mental illness that previously went untreated—and yes, meta-analysis shows that treatment can and does work.

Of course, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. Many of our existing models are seriously flawed in very important ways, and many economists continue to use those models incautiously, blind to their defects. The Second Depression was largely the fault of economists, because it was economists who told everyone that markets are efficient, banks will regulate themselves, leave it alone, don’t worry about it.

But we can do better. We will do better. And we can only do that because economics is a science, it does reflect reality, and therefore we make ourselves less wrong.

Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things

July 20, JDN 2457590

My posts recently have been fairly theoretical and mathematically intensive, so I thought I’d take a break from that today and offer you a much simpler, more practical post that you could use right away to improve your own finances.

Cognitive economists are so accustomed to using the word “heuristic” in contrast with words like “optimal” and “rational” that we tend to treat them as something bad. If only we didn’t have these darn heuristics, we could be those perfect rational agents the neoclassicists keep telling us about!

But in fact this is almost completely backwards: Heuristics are the reason human beings are capable of rational thought, unlike, well, anything else in the known universe. To be fair, many animals are capable of some limited rationality, often more than most people realize, but still far less than our own—and what rationality they have is born of the same evolutionary heuristics we use. Computers and robots are now approaching something that could be called rationality, but they still have a long way to go before they’ll really be acting rationally rather than perfectly following precise instructions—and of course we made them, modeled after our own thought processes. Current robots are logical, but not rational. The difference between logic and rationality is rather like that between intelligence and wisdom. Logic dictates that coffee is a berry; rationality says you may not enjoy it in your fruit salad. Robots are still at the point where they’d put coffee in our fruit salads if we told them to include a random mix of berries.

Heuristics are what allows us to make rational decisions 90% of the time. We might wish for something that would make us rational 100% of the time, but no known method exists; the best we can do is learn better heuristics to raise our percentage to perhaps 92% or 95%. With no heuristics at all, we would be 0% rational, not 100%.

So today I’m going to offer you a new heuristic, which I think might help you give your choices that little 2% boost. Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things.

This is a little mantra to repeat to yourself whenever you have a purchasing decision to make—which, in a consumerist economy like ours, is surely several times a day. The precise definition of “cheap” and “expensive” will vary according to your income (to a billionaire, my lifetime income is a pittance; to someone at the UN poverty level, my annual income is an unimaginable bounty of riches). But for a typical middle-class American, “cheap” can be approximately defined by a Jackson heuristic—anything less than $20 is cheap—and “expensive” by a Benjamin heuristic—anything over $100 is expensive. It doesn’t need to be hard-edged either; you should apply this heuristic more thoroughly for purchases of $10,000 (i.e. cars) than you do for purchase of $1,000, and still more so for purchase of $100,000 (houses).

Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things; what do I mean by that?

If you are going to buy something cheap, you can choose the expensive variety if you like. If you have the choice of a $1 toothbrush, a $5 toothbrush, and a $10 toothbrush, and you really do like the $10 toothbrush, don’t agonize over it—just buy the damn $10 toothbrush. Obviously there’s no reason to do that if the $1 toothbrush is really just as good for your needs; but if there’s any difference in quality you care about, it is almost certainly worth it to buy the better one.

If you are going to buy something expensive, you should choose the cheap variety if you can. If you have the choice of a $14,000 car, a $15,000 car, and a $16,000 car, you should buy the $14,000 car, unless the other cars are massively superior. You should basically be aiming for the cheapest bare-minimum choice that allows you to meet your needs. (I should be careful using cars as my example, because many old used cars that seem “cheap” are actually more expensive to fuel and maintain than it would cost to simply buy a newer model—but assume you’ve factored in a good estimate of the maintenance cost. You should almost never buy cars that aren’t at least a year old, however—first-year depreciation is huge. Let someone else lease it for a year before it you buy it.)

Why do I say this? Many people find the result counter-intuitive: I just told you to spend 900% more on toothbrushes, but insisted that you scrounge to save 12.5% on a car. Even if we adjust for the asymmetry using log points, I told you to indulge 230 log points of toothbrush for a tiny gain, while insisted you bear no-frills bare-minimum to save 13 log points of car.

I have also saved you $1,991. That’s why.

Intuitively we tend to think in terms of proportional prices—this car is 12.5% cheaper than that car, this toothbrush is 900% more expensive than that toothbrush. But you don’t spend money in proportions. You spend it in absolute amounts. So when you decide to make a purchase, you need to train yourself to think in terms of the absolute difference in price—paying $9 more versus paying $2000 more.

Businesses are counting on you not to think this way; that car dealer is surely going to point out that the $16,000 model has a sunroof and upgraded tire rims and whatever, and it’s only 14% more! But unless you would seriously be willing to pay $2,000 to get a sunroof and upgraded tire rims installed later, you should not upgrade to the $16,000 model. Don’t let them bamboozle you with “it’s a $5,000 value!”; it might well be a $5,000 price to do elsewhere, but that’s not the same thing. Only you can decide whether it’s of sufficient value to you.

There’s another reason this heuristic can be useful, which is that it will tend to pressure you into buying experiences instead of objects—and it is a well-established pattern in cognitive economics that experiences are a more cost-effective source of happiness than objects. “Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things” doesn’t necessarily pressure toward buying experiences, as one could certainly load up on useless $20 gadgets or spend $5,000 on a luxurious vacation to Paris. But as a general pattern (and heuristics are all about general patterns!) you’re more likely to spend $20 on a dinner or $5,000 on a car. Some of the cheapest things people buy, like dining out with friends, are some of the greatest sources of happiness—you are, in a real sense, buying friendship. Some of the most expensive things people buy, like real estate, are precisely the sort of thing you should be willing to skimp on, because they really won’t bring you happiness. Larger houses are not statistically associated with higher happiness.

Indeed, part of the great crisis of real estate prices (which is a phenomenon across all First World cities, and surprisingly worse in Canada than the US, though worse still in California in particular) probably comes from people not applying this sort of heuristic. “This house is $240,000, but that one is only 10% more and look how much nicer it is!” That’s $24,000. You can buy that nicer house, or you can buy a second car. Or you can have an extra year of your child’s college fund. That is what that 10% actually means. I’m sure this isn’t the primary reason why housing in the US is so ludicrously expensive, but it may be a contributing factor. (Krugman argued similarly during the housing crash.)

Like any heuristic, “Expensive cheap things, cheap expensive things” will sometimes fail you, and if you think carefully you can probably outperform it. But I’ve found it’s a good habit to get into; it has helped me save money more than just about anything else I’ve tried.

The credit rating agencies to be worried about aren’t the ones you think

JDN 2457499

John Oliver is probably the best investigative journalist in America today, despite being neither American nor officially a journalist; last week he took on the subject of credit rating agencies, a classic example of his mantra “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” (note that it’s on HBO, so there is foul language):

As ever, his analysis of the subject is quite good—it’s absurd how much power these agencies have over our lives, and how little accountability they have for even assuring accuracy.

But I couldn’t help but feel that he was kind of missing the point. The credit rating agencies to really be worried about aren’t Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, the ones that assess credit ratings on individuals. They are Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch (which would have been even easier to skewer the way John Oliver did—perhaps we can get them confused with Standardly Poor, Moody, and Filch), the agencies which assess credit ratings on institutions.

These credit rating agencies have almost unimaginable power over our society. They are responsible for rating the risk of corporate bonds, certificates of deposit, stocks, derivatives such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, and even municipal and government bonds.

S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch don’t just rate the creditworthiness of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase; they rate the creditworthiness of Detroit and Greece. (Indeed, they played an important role in the debt crisis of Greece, which I’ll talk about more in a later post.)

Moreover, they are proven corrupt. It’s a matter of public record.

Standard and Poor’s is the worst; they have been successfully sued for fraud by small banks in Pennsylvania and by the State of New Jersey; they have also settled fraud cases with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice.

Moody’s has also been sued for fraud by the Department of Justice, and all three have been prosecuted for fraud by the State of New York.

But in fact this underestimates the corruption, because the worst conflicts of interest aren’t even illegal, or weren’t until Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010. The basic structure of this credit rating system is fundamentally broken; the agencies are private, for-profit corporations, and they get their revenue entirely from the banks that pay them to assess their risk. If they rate a bank’s asset as too risky, the bank stops paying them, and instead goes to another agency that will offer a higher rating—and simply the threat of doing so keeps them in line. As a result their ratings are basically uncorrelated with real risk—they failed to predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the failure of mortgage-backed CDOs, and they didn’t “predict” the European debt crisis so much as cause it by their panic.

Then of course there’s the fact that they are obviously an oligopoly, and furthermore one that is explicitly protected under US law. But then it dawns upon you: Wait… US law? US law decides the structure of credit rating agencies that set the bond rates of entire nations? Yes, that’s right. You’d think that such ratings would be set by the World Bank or something, but they’re not; in fact here’s a paper published by the World Bank in 2004 about how rather than reform our credit rating system, we should instead tell poor countries to reform themselves so they can better impress the private credit rating agencies.

In fact the whole concept of “sovereign debt risk” is fundamentally defective; a country that borrows in its own currency should never have to default on debt under any circumstances. National debt is almost nothing like personal or corporate debt. Their fears should be inflation and unemployment—their monetary policy should be set to minimize the harm of these two basic macroeconomic problems, understanding that policies which mitigate one may enflame the other. There is such a thing as bad fiscal policy, but it has nothing to do with “running out of money to pay your debt” unless you are forced to borrow in a currency you can’t control (as Greece is, because they are on the Euro—their debt is less like the US national debt and more like the debt of Puerto Rico, which is suffering an ongoing debt crisis you may not have heard about). If you borrow in your own currency, you should be worried about excessive borrowing creating inflation and devaluing your currency—but not about suddenly being unable to repay your creditors. The whole concept of giving a sovereign nation a credit rating makes no sense. You will be repaid on time and in full, in nominal terms; if inflation or currency exchange has devalued the currency you are repaid in, that’s sort of like a partial default, but it’s a fundamentally different kind of “default” than simply not paying back the money—and credit ratings have no way of capturing that difference.

In particular, it makes no sense for interest rates on government bonds to go up when a country is suffering some kind of macroeconomic problem.

The basic argument for why interest rates go up when risk is higher is that lenders expect to be paid more by those who do pay to compensate for what they lose from those who don’t pay. This is already much more problematic than most economists appreciate; I’ve been meaning to write a paper on how this system creates self-fulfilling prophecies of default and moral hazard from people who pay their debts being forced to subsidize those who don’t. But it at least makes some sense.

But if a country is a “high risk” in the sense of macroeconomic instability undermining the real value of their debt, we want to ensure that they can restore macroeconomic stability. But we know that when there is a surge in interest rates on government bonds, instability gets worse, not better. Fiscal policy is suddenly shifted away from real production into higher debt payments, and this creates unemployment and makes the economic crisis worse. As Paul Krugman writes about frequently, these policies of “austerity” cause enormous damage to national economies and ultimately benefit no one because they destroy the source of wealth that would have been used to repay the debt.

By letting credit rating agencies decide the rates at which governments must borrow, we are effectively treating national governments as a special case of corporations. But corporations, by design, act for profit and can go bankrupt. National governments are supposed to act for the public good and persist indefinitely. We can’t simply let Greece fail as we might let a bank fail (and of course we’ve seen that there are serious downsides even to that). We have to restructure the sovereign debt system so that it benefits the development of nations rather than detracting from it. The first step is removing the power of private for-profit corporations in the US to decide the “creditworthiness” of entire countries. If we need to assess such risks at all, they should be done by international institutions like the UN or the World Bank.

But right now people are so stuck in the idea that national debt is basically the same as personal or corporate debt that they can’t even understand the problem. For after all, one must repay one’s debts.

Thus ends our zero-lower-bound interest rate policy

JDN 2457383

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

If you are reading the blogs as they are officially published, it will have been over a week since the Federal Reserve ended its policy of zero interest rates. (If you are reading this as a Patreon Blog from the Future, it will only have been a few days.)

The official announcement was made on December 16. The Federal Funds Target Rate will be raised from 0%-0.25% to 0.25%-0.5%. That one-quarter percentage point—itself no larger than the margin of error the Fed allots itself—will make all the difference.

As pointed out in the New York Times, this is the first time nominal interest rates have been raised in almost a decade. But the Fed had been promising it for some time, and thus a major reason they did it was to preserve their own credibility. They also say they think inflation is about to hit the 2% target, though it hasn’t yet (and I was never clear on why 2% was the target in the first place).

Actually, overall inflation is currently near zero. What is at 2% is what’s called “core inflation”, which excludes particularly volatile products such as oil and food. The idea is that we want to set monetary policy based upon long-run trends in the economy as a whole, not based upon sudden dips and surges in oil prices. But right now we are in the very odd scenario of the Fed raising interest rates in order to stop inflation even as the total amount most people need to spend to maintain their standard of living is the same as it was a year ago.

As MSNBC argues, it is essentially an announcement that the Second Depression is over and the economy has now returned to normal. Of course, simply announcing such a thing does not make it true.

Personally, I think this move is largely symbolic. The difference between 0% and 0.25% is unimportant for most practical purposes.

If you owe $100,000 over 30 years at 0% interest, you will pay $277.78 per month, totaling of course $100,000. If your interest rate were raised to 0.25% interest, you would instead owe $288.35 per month, totaling $103,807.28. Even over 30 years, that 0.25% interest raises your total expenditure by less than 4%.

Over shorter terms it’s even less important. If you owe $20,000 over 5 years at 0% interest, you will pay $333.33 per month totaling $20,000. At 0.25%, you would pay $335.46 per month totaling $20,127.34, a mere 0.6% more.

Moreover, if a bank was willing to take out a loan at 0%, they’ll probably still be at 0.25%.

Where it would have the largest impact is in more exotic financial instruments, like zero-amortization or negative-amortization bonds. A zero-amortization bond at 0% is literally free money forever (assuming you can keep rolling it over). A zero-amortization bond at 0.25% means you must at least pay 0.25% of the money back each year. A negative-amortization bond at 0% makes no sense mathematically (somehow you pay back less than 0% at each payment?), while a negative-amortization bond at 0.25% only doesn’t make sense practically. If both zero and negative-amortization seem really bizarre and impossible to justify, that’s because they are. They should not exist. Most exotic financial instruments have no reason to exist, aside from the fact that they can be used to bamboozle people into giving money to the financial corporations that create them. (Which reminds me, I need to see The Big Short. But of course I have to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens first; one must have priorities.)

So, what will happen as a result of this change in interest rates? Probably not much. Inflation might go down a little—which means we might have overall deflation, and that would be bad—and the rate of increase in credit might drop slightly. In the worst-case scenario, unemployment starts to rise again, the Fed realizes their mistake, and interest rates will be dropped back to zero.

I think it’s more instructive to look at why they did this—the symbolic significance behind it.

The zero lower bound is weird. It makes a lot of economists very uncomfortable. The usual rules for how monetary and fiscal policy work break down, because the equation hits up against a constraint—a corner solution, more technically. Krugman often talks about how many of the usual ideas about how interest rates and government spending work collapse at the zero-lower-bound. We have models of this sort of thing that are pretty good, but they’re weird and counter-intuitive, so policymakers never seem to actually use them.

What is the zero lower bound, you ask? Exactly what it says on the tin. There is a lower bound on how low you can set an interest rate, and for all practical purposes that limit is zero. If you start trying to set an interest rate of -5%, people won’t be willing to loan out money and will instead hoard cash. (Interestingly, a central bank with a strong currency, such as that of the US, UK, or EU, can actually set small negative nominal interest rates—because people consider their bonds safer than cash, so they’ll pay for the safety. The ECB, Europe’s Fed, actually did so for awhile.)

The zero-lower-bound actually applies to prices in general, not just interest rates. If a product is so worthless to you that you don’t even want it if it’s free, it’s very rare for anyone to actually pay you to take it—partly because there might be nothing to stop you from taking a huge amount of it and forcing them to pay you ridiculous amounts of money. “How much is this paperclip?” “-$0.75.” “I’ll have 50 billion, please.” In a few rare cases, they might be able to pay you to take it an amount that’s less than what it costs you to store and transport. Also, if they benefit from giving it to you, companies will give you things for free—think ads and free samples. But basically, if people won’t even take something for free, that thing simply doesn’t get sold.

But if we are in a recession, we really don’t want loans to stop being made altogether. So if people are unwilling to take out loans at 0% interest, we’re in trouble. Generally what we have to do is rely on inflation to reduce the real value of money over time, thus creating a real interest rate that’s negative even though the nominal interest rate remains stuck at 0%. But what if inflation is very low? Then there’s nothing you can do except find a way to raise inflation or increase demand for credit. This means relying upon unconventional methods like quantitative easing (trying to cause inflation), or preferably using fiscal policy to spend a bunch of money and thereby increase demand for credit.

What the Fed is basically trying to do here is say that we are no longer in that bad situation. We can now set interest rates where they actually belong, rather than forcing them as low as they’ll go and hoping inflation will make up the difference.

It’s actually similar to how if you take a test and score 100%, there’s no way of knowing whether you just barely got 100%, or if you would have still done as well if the test were twice as hard—but if you score 99%, you actually scored 99% and would have done worse if the test were harder. In the former case you were up against a constraint; in the latter it’s your actual value. The Fed is essentially announcing that we really want interest rates near 0%, as opposed to being bound at 0%—and the way they do that is by setting a target just slightly above 0%.

So far, there doesn’t seem to have been much effect on markets. And frankly, that’s just what I’d expect.

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

JDN 2457321 EDT 11:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was also Stiglitz who said this:

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

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

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

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

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

Stiglitz tears apart the “job creator” myth:

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

Stiglitz talks about two principles of taxation to follow:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free trade, fair trade, or what?

JDN 2457271 EDT 11:34.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, almost all economists are opposed to protectionism. In a survey of 264 AEA economists, 87% opposed tariffs to protect US workers against foreign competition.

(By the way, 58% said they usually vote Democrat and only 23% said they usually vote Republican. Given that economists are overwhelmingly middle-age rich White males—only 12% of tenured faculty economists are women and the median income of economists is over $90,000—that’s saying something. Dare I suggest it’s saying that Democrat economic policy is usually better?)

There are a large number of published research papers showing large positive effects of free trade agreements, such as this paper, and this paper, and this paper, and this paper. It’s hard to find any good papers showing any significant negative effects. This is probably why the consensus is so strong; the empirical evidence is overwhelming.

Yet protectionism is very popular among the general public. The majority of both Democrat and Republican voters believe that free trade agreements have harmed the United States. For decades, protectionism has always been the politically popular answer.

To be fair, it’s actually possible to think that free trade harms the US but still support free trade; actually there are some economists who argue that free trade has harmed the US, but has benefited other countries like China and India so much more that it is worth it, making free trade an act of global altruism and good will (for the opposite view, here’s a pretty good article about how “free trade” in principle is often mercantilism in practice, and by no means altruistic). As Krugman talks about, there is some evidence that income inequality in the First World has been exacerbated by globalization—but it’s clearly not the primary reason for rising inequality.

What’s going on here? Are economists ignoring the negative impacts of free trade because it doesn’t fit their elegant mathematical models? Is the general public ignorant of how trade actually works? Does the way free trade works, or its interaction with human psychology, inherently obscure its benefits while emphasizing its harms?

Yes. All of the above.

One of the central mistakes of neoclassical economics is the tendency to over-aggregate. Instead of looking at the impact on individuals, it’s much easier to look at the impact on aggregated abstractions like trade flows and GDP. To some extent this is inevitable—there are simply too many people in the world to keep track of them all. But we need to be aware of what welose when we aggregate, and we need to test the robustness of our theories by applying different models of aggregation (such as comparing “how does this affect Americans” with “how does this affect the First World middle class”).

It is absolutely unambiguous that free trade increases trade flows and GDP, and for small countries these benefits can be mind-bogglingly huge. A key part of the amazing success story of economic development that is Korea is that they dramatically increased their openness to global trade.

The reason for this is absolutely fundamental to economics, and in grasping it in 1776 Adam Smith basically founded the field: Voluntary trade benefits both parties.

As most economists would put it today, comparative advantage leads to Pareto-improving gains from trade. Or as I’d tend to put it, more succinctly yet just as thoroughly based in modern game theory: Trade is nonzero-sum.

When you sell a product to someone, it is because the money they’re offering you is worth more to you than the product—and because the product is worth more to them than the money. You each lose something you value less and gain something you value more—so you are both better off.

This mutual benefit occurs whether you are individuals, corporations, or nations. It’s a fundamental principle of economics that underlies the operation of markets at every scale.

This is what I think most people don’t understand when they say they want to “stop sending jobs overseas”. If by that all you mean is ensuring that there aren’t incentives to offshore and outsource, that’s quite reasonable. Even some degree of incentive to keep businesses in the US might make sense, to avoid a race-to-the-bottom in global wages. But I get the sense that it is more than this, that people have a general notion that jobs are zero-sum and if we hire a million people in China that means a million people must lose their jobs in the US. This is not simply wrong, it is fundamentally wrong; it misses the entire point of economics. If there is one core principle that defines economics, I think it would be that the universe is nonzero-sum; gains for some can also be gains for others. There is not a fixed amount of stuff in the world that we distribute; we can make more stuff. Handled properly, a trade that results in a million people hired in China can mean an extra million people hired in the US.

Once you introduce a competitive market, things get more complicated, because there aren’t just winners—there are also losers. When you have competitors, someone can buy from them instead of you, and the two of them benefit, but you are harmed. By the standard methods of calculating benefits and harms (which admittedly leave much to be desired), we can show quite clearly that in general, on average, the benefits outweigh the harms.

But of course we don’t live “in general, on average”. Despite the overwhelming, unambiguous benefit to the economy as a whole, there is some evidence that free trade can produce a good deal of harm to specific individuals.

Suppose you live in the US and your job is to assemble iPads. You’re good at it, you like it, it pays pretty well. But now Apple says that they want to “reduce labor costs” (they are in fact doing nothing of the sort; to really reduce labor costs in a deep economic sense you’d have to make work easier, more productive, or more fun—the wage and the cost are fundamentally different things), so they outsource production to Foxconn in China, who pay wages 1/30 of what you were being paid.

The net result of this change to the economy as a whole is almost certainly positive—the price of iPads goes down, we all get to have iPads. (There’s a meme going around claiming that the price of an iPad would be almost $15,000 if it were made in the US; no, it would cost about $1000 even if our productivity were no higher and Apple could keep their current profit margin intact, both of which are clearly overestimates. But since it’s currently selling for about $500, that’s still a big difference.) Apple makes more profits, which is why they did it—and we do have to count that in our GDP. Most importantly, workers in China get employed in safe, high-skill jobs instead of working in coal mines, subsistence farming, or turning to drugs and prostitution. More stuff, more profits, better jobs for some of the world’s poorest workers. These are all good things, and overall they outweigh the harm of you losing your job.

Well, from a global perspective, anyway. I doubt they outweigh the harm from your perspective. You still lost a good job; you’re now unemployed, and may have skills so specific that they can’t be transferred to anything else. You’ll need to retrain, which means going back to school or else finding one of those rare far-sighted companies that actually trains their workers. Since the social welfare system in the US is such a quagmire of nonsensical programs, you may be ineligible for support, or eligible in theory and unable to actually get it in practice. (Recently I got a notice from Medicaid that I need to prove again that my income is sufficiently low. Apparently it’s because I got hired at a temporary web development gig, which paid me a whopping $700 over a few weeks—why, that’s almost the per-capita GDP of Ghana, so clearly I am a high-roller who doesn’t need help affording health insurance. I wonder how much they spend sending out these notices.)

If we had a basic income—I know I harp on this a lot, but seriously, it solves almost every economic problem you can think of—losing your job wouldn’t make you feel so desperate, and owning a share in GDP would mean that the rising tide actually would lift all boats. This might make free trade more popular.

But even with ideal policies (which we certainly do not have), the fact remains that human beings are loss-averse. We care more about losses than we do about gains. The pain you feel from losing $100 is about the same as the joy you feel from gaining $200. The pain you feel from losing your job is about twice as intense as the joy you feel from finding a new one.

Because of loss aversion, the constant churn of innovation and change, the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter considered the defining advantage of capitalism—well, it hurts. The constant change and uncertainty is painful, and we want to run away from it.

But the truth is, we can’t. There’s no way to stop the change in the global economy, and most of our attempts to insulate ourselves from it only end up hurting us more. This, I think, is the fundamental reason why protectionism is popular among the general public but not economists: The general public sees protectionism as a way of holding onto the past, while economists recognize that it is simply a way of damaging the future. That constant churning of people gaining and losing jobs isn’t a bug, it’s a feature—it’s the reason that capitalism is so efficient in the first place.

There are a few ways we can reduce the pain of this churning, but we need to focus on that—reducing the pain—rather than trying to stop the churning itself. We should provide social welfare programs that allow people to survive while they are unemployed. We should use active labor market policies to train new workers and match them with good jobs. We may even want to provide some sort of subsidy or incentive to companies that don’t outsource—a small one, to make sure they don’t do so needlessly, but not a large one, so they’ll still do it when it’s actually necessary.

But the one thing we must not do is stop creating jobs overseas. And yes, that is what we are doing, creating jobs. We are not sending jobs that already exist, we are creating new ones. In the short run we also destroy some jobs here, but if we do it right we can replace them—and usually we do okay.

If we stop creating jobs in India and China and around the world, millions of people will starve.

Yes, it is as stark as that. Millions of lives depend upon continued open trade. We in the United States are a manufacturing, technological and agricultural superpower—we could wall ourselves off from the world and only see a few percentage points shaved off of GDP. But a country like Nicaragua or Ghana or Vietnam doesn’t have that option; if they cut off trade, people start dying.

This is actually the main reason why our trade agreements are often so unfair; we are in by far the stronger bargaining position, so we can make them cut their tariffs on textiles even as we maintain our subsidies on agriculture. We are Mr. Bumble dishing out gruel and they are Oliver Twist begging for another bite.

We can’t afford to stop free trade. We can’t even afford to significantly slow it down. A global economy is the best hope we have for global peace and global prosperity.

That is not to say that we should leave trade completely unregulated; trade policy can and should be used to enforce human rights standards. That enormous asymmetry in bargaining power doesn’t have to be used to maximize profits; it can be used to advance human rights.

This is not as simple as saying we should never trade with nations that have bad human rights records, by the way. First of all that would require we cut off Saudi Arabia and China, which is totally unrealistic and would impoverish millions of people; second it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Instead we should use sanctions, tariffs, and trade agreements to provide incentives to improve human rights, rewarding governments that do and punishing governments that don’t. We could have a sliding tariff that decreases every time you show improvement in human rights standards. Think of it like behavioral reinforcement; reward good behavior and you’ll get more of it.

We do need to have sweatshops—but as Krugman has come around to realizing, we can make sweatshops safer. We can put pressure on other countries to treat their workers better, pay them more—and actually make the global economy more efficient, because right now their wages are held down below the efficient level by the power that corporations wield over them. We should not demand that they pay the same they would here in the First World—that’s totally unrealistic, given the difference in productivity—but we should demand that they pay what their workers actually deserve.

Similar incentives should apply to individual corporations, which these days are as powerful as some governments. For example, as part of a zero-tolerance program against forced labor, any company caught using or outsourcing to forced labor should have its profits garnished for damages and the executives who made the decision imprisoned. Sometimes #Scandinaviaisnotbetter; IKEA was involved in such outsourcing during the Cold War, and it is currently being litigated just how much they knew and what they could have done about it. If they knew and did nothing, some IKEA executive should be going to prison. If that seems extreme, let me remind you what they did: They used slaves.

My standard for penalizing human rights violations, whether by corporations or governments, is basically like this: Follow the decision-making up the chain of command, stopping only when the next-higher executive can clearly show to the preponderance of evidence that they were kept out of the loop. If no executive can provide sufficient evidence, the highest-ranking executive at the time the crime was committed will be held responsible. If you don’t want to be held responsible for crimes committed by people who work for you, it’s your responsibility to bring them to justice. Negligence in oversight will not be exonerating because you didn’t know; it will be incriminating because you should have. When your bank is caught laundering money for terrorists and drug lords, it isn’t enough to have your chief of compliance resign; he should be imprisoned—and if his superiors knew about it, so should they.

In fact maybe the focus should be on corporations, because we have the legal authority to do that. When dealing with other countries, there are United Nations rules and simply the de facto power of large trade flows and national standing armies. With Saudi Arabia or China, there’s a very real chance that they’ll simply tell us where we can shove it; but if we get that same kind of response from HSBC or Goldman Sachs (which, actually, we did), we can start taking out handcuffs (that, we did not do—but I think we should have).

We can also use consumer pressure to change the behavior of corporations, such as Fair Trade. There’s some debate about just how effective these things are, but the comparison that is often made between Fair Trade and tariffs is ridiculous; this is a change in consumer behavior, not a change in government policy. There is absolutely no loss of freedom. Choosing not to buy something does not constitute coercion against someone else. Maybe there are more efficient ways to spend money (like donating it directly to the best global development charities), but if you start going down that road you quickly turn into Peter Singer and start saying that wearing nicer shoes means you’re committing murder. By all means, let’s empirically study different methods of fighting poverty and focus on the ones that work best; but there’s a perverse smugness to criticisms of Fair Trade that says to me this isn’t actually about that at all. Instead, I think most people who criticize Fair Trade don’t support the idea of altruism at all—they’re far-right Randian libertarians who honestly believe that selfishness is the highest form of human morality. (It is in fact the second-lowest, according to Kohlberg.) Maybe it will turn out that Fair Trade is actually ineffective at fighting poverty, but it’s clear that an unregulated free market isn’t good at that either. Those aren’t the only options, and the best way to find out which methods work is to give them a try. Consumer pressure clearly can work in some cases, and it’s a low-cost zero-regulation solution. They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions—but would you rather we have bad intentions instead?

By these two methods we could send a clear message to multinational corporations that if they want to do business in the US—and trust me, they do—they have to meet certain standards of human rights. This in turn will make those corporations put pressure on their suppliers, all the way down the supply chain, to uphold the standards lest they lose their contracts. With some companies upholding labor standards in Third World countries, others will be forced to, as workers refuse to work for companies that don’t. This could make life better for many millions of people.

But this whole plan only works on one condition: We need to have trade.