The sunk-cost fallacy

JDN 2457075 EST 14:46.

I am back on Eastern Time once again, because we just finished our 3600-km road trek from Long Beach to Ann Arbor. I seem to move an awful lot; this makes me a bit like Schumpeter, who moved an average of every two years his whole adult life. Schumpeter and I have much in common, in fact, though I have no particular interest in horses.

Today’s topic is the sunk-cost fallacy, which was particularly salient as I had to box up all my things for the move. There were many items that I ended up having to throw away because it wasn’t worth moving them—but this was always painful, because I couldn’t help but think of all the work or money I had put into them. I threw away craft projects I had spent hours working on and collections of bottlecaps I had gathered over years—because I couldn’t think of when I’d use them, and ultimately the question isn’t how hard they were to make in the past, it’s what they’ll be useful for in the future. But each time it hurt, like I was giving up a little part of myself.

That’s the sunk-cost fallacy in a nutshell: Instead of considering whether it will be useful to us later and thus worth having around, we naturally tend to consider the effort that went into getting it. Instead of making our decisions based on the future, we make them based on the past.

Come to think of it, the entire Marxist labor theory of value is basically one gigantic sunk-cost fallacy: Instead of caring about the usefulness of a product—the mainstream utility theory of value—we are supposed to care about the labor that went into making it. To see why this is wrong, imagine someone spends 10,000 hours carving meaningless symbols into a rock, and someone else spends 10 minutes working with chemicals but somehow figures out how to cure pancreatic cancer. Which one would you pay more for—particularly if you had pancreatic cancer?

This is one of the most common irrational behaviors humans do, and it’s worth considering why that might be. Most people commit the sunk-cost fallacy on a daily basis, and even those of us who are aware of it will still fall into it if we aren’t careful.

This often seems to come from a fear of being wasteful; I don’t know of any data on this, but my hunch is that the more environmentalist you are, the more often you tend to run into the sunk-cost fallacy. You feel particularly bad wasting things when you are conscious of the damage that waste does to our planetary ecosystem. (Which is not to say that you should not be environmentalist; on the contrary, most of us should be a great deal more environmentalist than we are. The negative externalities of environmental degradation are almost unimaginably enormous—climate change already kills 150,000 people every year and is projected to kill tens if not hundreds of millions people over the 21st century.)

I think sunk-cost fallacy is involved in a lot of labor regulations as well. Most countries have employment protection legislation that makes it difficult to fire people for various reasons, ranging from the basically reasonable (discrimination against women and racial minorities) to the totally absurd (in some countries you can’t even fire people for being incompetent). These sorts of regulations are often quite popular, because people really don’t like the idea of losing their jobs. When faced with the possibility of losing your job, you should be thinking about what your future options are; but many people spend a lot of time thinking about the past effort they put into this one. I think there is also some endowment effect and loss aversion at work as well: You value your job more simply because you already have it, so you don’t want to lose it even for something better.

Yet these regulations are widely regarded by economists as inefficient; and for once I am inclined to agree. While I certainly don’t want people being fired frivolously or for discriminatory reasons, sometimes companies really do need to lay off workers because there simply isn’t enough demand for their products. When a factory closes down, we think about the jobs that are lost—but we don’t think about the better jobs they can now do instead.

I favor a system like what they have in Denmark (I’m popularizing a hashtag about this sort of thing: #Scandinaviaisbetter): We don’t try to protect your job, we try to protect you. Instead of regulations that make it hard to fire people, Denmark has a generous unemployment insurance system, strong social welfare policies, and active labor market policies that help people retrain and find new and better jobs. One thing I think Denmark might want to consider is restrictions on cyclical layoffs—in a recession there is pressure to lay off workers, but that can create a vicious cycle that makes recessions worse. Denmark was hit considerably harder by the Great Recession than France, for example; where France’s unemployment rose from 7.5% to 9.6%, Denmark’s rose from an astonishing 3.1% all the way up to 7.6%.

Then again, sometimes what looks like a sunk-cost fallacy actually isn’t—and I think this gives us insight into how we might have evolved such an apparently silly heuristic in the first place.

Why would you care about what you did in the past when deciding what to do in the future? Well there’s one reason in particular: Credible commitment. There are many cases in life where you’d like to be able to plan to do something in the future, but when the time comes to actually do it you’ll be tempted not to follow through.

This sort of thing happens all the time: When you take out a loan, you plan to pay it back—but when you need to actually make payments it sure would be nice if you didn’t have to. If you’re trying to slim down, you go on a diet—but doesn’t that cookie look delicious? You know you should quit smoking for your health—but what’s one more cigarette, really? When you get married, you promise to be faithful—but then sometimes someone else comes along who seems so enticing! Your term paper is due in two weeks, so you really should get working on it—but your friends are going out for drinks tonight, why not start the paper tomorrow?

Our true long-term interests are often misaligned with our short-term temptations. This often happens because of hyperbolic discounting, which is a bit technical; but the basic idea is that you tend to rate the importance of an event in inverse proportion to its distance in time. That turns out to be irrational, because as you get closer to the event, your valuations will change disproportionately. The optimal rational choice would be exponential discounting, where you value each successive moment a fixed percentage less than the last—since that percentage doesn’t change, your valuations will always stay in line with one another. But basically nobody really uses exponential discounting in real life.

We can see this vividly in experiments: If we ask people whether they would you rather receive $100 today, or $110 a week from now, they often go with $100 today. But if you ask them whether they would rather receive $100 in 52 weeks or $110 in 53 weeks, almost everyone chooses the $110. The value of a week apparently depends on how far away it is! (The $110 is clearly the rational choice by the way. Discounting 10% per week makes no sense at all—unless you literally believe that $1,000 today is as good as $140,000 a year from now.)

To solve this problem, it can be advantageous to make commitments—either enforced by direct measures such as legal penalties, or even simply by making promises that we feel guilty breaking. That’s why cold turkey is often the most effective way to quit a drug. Physiologically that makes no sense, because gradual cessation clearly does reduce withdrawal symptoms. But psychologically it does, because cold turkey allows you to make a hardline commitment to never again touch the stuff. The majority of successful smokers report using cold turkey, though there is still ongoing research on whether properly-orchestrated gradual reduction can be more effective. Likewise, vague notions like “I’ll eat better and exercise more” are virtually useless, while specific prescriptions like “I will do 20 minutes of exercise every day and stop eating red meat” are much more effective—the latter allows you to make a promise to yourself that can be broken, and since you feel bad breaking it you are motivated to keep it.

In the presence of such commitments, the past does matter, at least insofar as you made commitments to yourself or others in the past. If you promised never to smoke another cigarette, or never to cheat on your wife, or never to eat meat again, you actually have a good reason—and a good chance—to never do those things. This is easy to confuse with a sunk cost; when you think about the 20 years you’ve been married or the 10 years you’ve been vegetarian, you might be thinking of the sunk cost you’ve incurred over that time, or you might be thinking of the promises you’ve made and kept to yourself and others. In the former case you are irrationally committing a sunk-cost fallacy; in the latter you are rationally upholding a credible commitment.

This is most likely why we evolved in such a way as to commit sunk-cost fallacies. The ability to enforce commitments on ourselves and others was so important that it was worth it to overcompensate and sometimes let us care about sunk costs. Because commitments and sunk costs are often difficult to distinguish, it would have been more costly to evolve better ways of distinguish them than it was to simply make the mistake.

Perhaps people who are outraged by being laid off aren’t actually committing a sunk-cost fallacy at all; perhaps they are instead assuming the existence of a commitment where none exists. “I gave this company 20 good years, and now they’re getting rid of me?” But the truth is, you gave the company nothing. They never committed to keeping you (unless they signed a contract, but that’s different; if they are violating a contract, of course they should be penalized for that). They made you a trade, and when that trade ceases to be advantageous they will stop making it. Corporations don’t think of themselves as having any moral obligations whatsoever; they exist only to make profit. It is certainly debatable whether it was a good idea to set up corporations in this way; but unless and until we change that system it is important to keep it in mind. You will almost never see a corporation do something out of kindness or moral obligation; that’s simply not how corporations work. At best, they do nice things to enhance their brand reputation (Starbucks, Whole Foods, Microsoft, Disney, Costco). Some don’t even bother doing that, letting people hate as long as they continue to buy (Walmart, BP, DeBeers). Actually the former model seems to be more successful lately, which bodes well for the future; but be careful to recognize that few if any of these corporations are genuinely doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Human beings are often altruistic; corporations are specifically designed not to be.

And there were some things I did promise myself I would keep—like old photos and notebooks that I want to keep as memories—so those went in boxes. Other things were obviously still useful—clothes, furniture, books. But for the rest? It was painful, but I thought about what I could realistically use them for, and if I couldn’t think of anything, they went into the trash.

No, capital taxes should not be zero

JDN 2456998 PST 11:38.

It’s an astonishingly common notion among neoclassical economists that we should never tax capital gains, and all taxes should fall upon labor income. Here Scott Sumner writing for The Economist has the audacity to declare this a ‘basic principle of economics’. Many of the arguments are based on rather esoteric theorems like the Atkinson-Stiglitz Theorem (I thought you were better than that, Stiglitz!) and the Chamley-Judd Theorem.

All of these theorems rest upon two very important assumptions, which many economists take for granted—yet which are utterly and totally untrue. For once it’s not assumed that we are infinite identical psychopaths; actually psychopaths might not give wealth to their children in inheritance, which would undermine the argument in a different way, by making each individual have a finite time horizon. No, the assumptions are that saving is the source of investment, and investment is the source of capital income.

Investment is the source of capital, that’s definitely true—the total amount of wealth in society is determined by investment. You do have to account for the fact that real investment isn’t just factories and machines, it’s also education, healthcare, infrastructure. With that in mind, yes, absolutely, the total amount of wealth is a function of the investment rate.

But that doesn’t mean that investment is the source of capital income—because in our present system the distribution of capital income is in no way determined by real investment or the actual production of goods. Virtually all capital income comes from financial markets, which are rife with corruption—they are indeed the main source of corruption that remains in First World nations—and driven primarily by arbitrage and speculation, not real investment. Contrary to popular belief and economic theory, the stock market does not fund corporations; corporations fund the stock market. It’s this bizarre game our society plays, in which a certain portion of the real output of our productive industries is siphoned off so that people who are already rich can gamble over it. Any theory of capital income which fails to take these facts into account is going to be fundamentally distorted.

The other assumption is that investment is savings, that the way capital increases is by labor income that isn’t spent on consumption. This isn’t even close to true, and I never understood why so many economists think it is. The notion seems to be that there is a certain amount of money in the world, and what you don’t spend on consumption goods you can instead spend on investment. But this is just flatly not true; the money supply is dynamically flexible, and the primary means by which money is created is through banks creating loans for the purpose of investment. It’s that I term I talked about in my post on the deficit; it seems to come out of nowhere, because that’s literally what happens.

On the reasoning that savings is just labor income that you don’t spend on consumption, then if you compute the figure W – C , wages and salaries minus consumption, that figure should be savings, and it should be equal to investment. Well, that figure is negative—for reasons I gave in that post. Total employee compensation in the US in 2014 is $9.2 trillion, while total personal consumption expenditure is $11.4 trillion. The reason we are able to save at all is because of government transfers, which account for $2.5 trillion. To fill up our GDP to its total of $16.8 trillion, you need to add capital income: proprietor income ($1.4 trillion) and receipts on assets ($2.1 trillion); then you need to add in the part of government spending that isn’t transfers ($1.4 trillion).

If you start with the fanciful assumption that the way capital increases is by people being “thrifty” and choosing to save a larger proportion of their income, then it makes some sense not to tax capital income. (Scott Sumner makes exactly that argument, having us compare two brothers with equal income, one of whom chooses to save more.) But this is so fundamentally removed from how capital—and for that matter capitalism—actually operates that I have difficulty understanding why anyone could think that it is true.

The best I can come up with is something like this: They model the world by imagining that there is only one good, peanuts, and everyone starts with the same number of peanuts, and everyone has a choice to either eat their peanuts or save and replant them. Then, the total production of peanuts in the future will be due to the proportion of peanuts that were replanted today, and the amount of peanuts each person has will be due to their past decisions to save rather than consume. Therefore savings will be equal to investment and investment will be the source of capital income.

I bet you can already see the problem even in this simple model, if we just relax the assumption of equal wealth endowments: Some people have a lot more peanuts than others. Why do some people eat all their peanuts? Well it probably has something to do with the fact they’d starve if they didn’t. Reducing your consumption below the level at which you can survive isn’t “thrifty”, it’s suicidal. (And if you think this is a strawman, the IMF has literally told Third World countries that their problem is they need to save more. Here they are arguing that in Ghana.) In fact, economic growth leads to saving, not the other way around. Most Americans aren’t starving, and could probably stand to save more than we do, but honestly it might not be good if we did—everyone trying to save more can lead to the Paradox of Thrift and cause a recession.

Even worse, in that model world, there is only capital income. There is no such thing as labor income, only the number of peanuts you grow from last year’s planting. If we now add in labor income, what happens? Well, peanuts don’t work anymore… let’s try robots. You have a certain number of robots, and you can either use the robots to do things you need (including somehow feeding you, I guess), or you can use them to build more robots to use later. You can also build more robots yourself. Then the “zero capital tax” argument amounts to saying that the government should take some of your robots for public use if you made them yourself, but not if they were made by other robots you already had.

In order for that argument to carry through, you need to say that there was no such thing as an initial capital endowment; all robots that exist were either made by their owners or saved from previous construction. If there is anyone who simply happened to be born with more robots, or has more because they stole them from someone else (or, more likely, both, they inherited from someone who stole), the argument falls apart.

And even then you need to think about the incentives: If capital income is really all from savings, then taxing capital income provides an incentive to spend. Is that a bad thing? I feel like it isn’t; the economy needs spending. In the robot toy model, we’re giving people a reason to use their robots to do actual stuff, instead of just leaving them to make more robots. That actually seems like it might be a good thing, doesn’t it? More stuff gets done that helps people, instead of just having vast warehouses full of robots building other robots in the hopes that someday we can finally use them for something. Whereas, taxing labor income may give people an incentive not to work, which is definitely going to reduce economic output. More precisely, higher taxes on labor would give low-wage workers an incentive to work less, and give high-wage workers an incentive to work more, which is a major part of the justification of progressive income taxes. A lot of the models intended to illustrate the Chamley-Judd Theorem assume that taxes have an effect on capital but no effect on labor, which is kind of begging the question.

Another thought that occurred to me is: What if the robots in the warehouse are all destroyed by a war or an earthquake? And indeed the possibility of sudden capital destruction would be a good reason not to put everything into investment. This is generally modeled as “uninsurable depreciation risk”, but come on; of course it’s uninsurable. All real risk is uninsurable in the aggregate. Insurance redistributes resources from those who have them but don’t need them to those who suddenly find they need them but don’t have them. This actually does reduce the real risk in utility, but it certainly doesn’t reduce the real risk in terms of goods. Stephen Colbert made this point very well: “Obamacare needs the premiums of healthier people to cover the costs of sicker people. It’s a devious con that can only be described as—insurance.” (This suggests that Stephen Colbert understands insurance better than many economists.) Someone has to make that new car that you bought using your insurance when you totaled the last one. Insurance companies cannot create cars or houses—or robots—out of thin air. And as Piketty and Saez point out, uninsurable risk undermines the Chamley-Judd Theorem. Unlike all these other economists, Piketty and Saez actually understand capital and inequality.
Sumner hand-waves that point away by saying we should just institute a one-time transfer of wealth to equalized the initial distribution, as though this were somehow a practically (not to mention politically) feasible alternative. Ultimately, yes, I’d like to see something like that happen; restore the balance and then begin anew with a just system. But that’s exceedingly difficult to do, while raising the tax rate on capital gains is very easy—and furthermore if we leave the current stock market and derivatives market in place, we will not have a just system by any stretch of the imagination. Perhaps if we can actually create a system where new wealth is really due to your own efforts, where there is no such thing as inheritance of riches (say a 100% estate tax above $1 million), no such thing as poverty (a basic income), no speculation or arbitrage, and financial markets that actually have a single real interest rate and offer all the credit that everyone needs, maybe then you can say that we should not tax capital income.

Until then, we should tax capital income, probably at least as much as we tax labor income.

Why immigration is good

JDN 2456977 PST 12:31.

The big topic in policy news today is immigration. After years of getting nothing done on the issue, Obama has finally decided to bypass Congress and reform our immigration system by executive order. Republicans are threatening to impeach him if he does. His decision to go forward without Congressional approval may have something to do with the fact that Republicans just took control of both houses of Congress. Naturally, Fox News is predicting economic disaster due to the expansion of the welfare state. (When is that not true?) A more legitimate critique comes from the New York Times, who point out how this sudden shift demonstrates a number of serious problems in our political system and how it is financed.

So let’s talk about immigration, and why it is almost always a good thing for a society and its economy. There are a couple of downsides, but they are far outweighed by the upsides.

I’ll start with the obvious: Immigration is good for the immigrants. That’s why they’re doing it. Uprooting yourself from your home and moving thousands of miles isn’t easy under the best circumstances (like I when I moved from Michigan to California for grad school); now imagine doing it when you are in crushing poverty and you have to learn a whole new language and culture once you arrive. People are only willing to do this when the stakes are high. The most extreme example is of course the children refugees from Latin America, who are finally getting some of the asylum they so greatly deserve, but even the “ordinary” immigrants coming from Mexico are leaving a society racked with poverty, endemic with corruption, and bathed in violence—most recently erupting in riots that have set fire to government buildings. These people are desperate; they are crossing our border despite the fences and guns because they feel they have no other choice. As a fundamental question of human rights, it is not clear to me that we even have the right to turn these people away. Forget the effect on our economy; forget the rate of assimilation; what right do we have to say to these people that their suffering should go on because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line?

There are wealthier immigrants—many of them here, in fact, for grad schoolwhose circumstances are not so desperate; but hardly anyone even considers turning them away, because we want their money and their skills in our society. Americans who fear brain drain have it all backwards; the United States is where the brains drain to. This trend may be reversing more recently as our right-wing economic policy pulls funding away from education and science, but it would likely only reach the point where we export as many intelligent people as we import; we’re not talking about creating a deficit here, only reducing our world-dominating surplus. And anyway I’m not so concerned about those people; yes, the world needs them, but they don’t need much help from the world.

My concern is for our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to breathe free. These are the people we are thinking about turning away—and these are the people who most desperately need us to take them in. That alone should be enough reason to open our borders, but apparently it isn’t for most people, so let’s talk about some of the ways that America stands to gain from such a decision.

First of all, immigration increases economic growth. Immigrants don’t just take in money; they also spend it back out, which further increases output and creates jobs. Immigrants are more likely than native citizens to be entrepreneurs, perhaps because taking the chance to start a business isn’t so scary after you’ve already taken the chance to travel thousands of miles to a new country. Our farming system is highly dependent upon cheap immigrant labor (that’s a little disturbing, but if as far as the US economy, we get cheap food by hiring immigrants on farms). On average, immigrants are younger than our current population, so they are more likely to work and less likely to retire, which has helped save the US from the economic malaise that afflicts nations like Japan where the aging population is straining the retirement system. More open immigration wouldn’t just increase the number of immigrants coming here to do these things; it would also make the immigrants who are already here more productive by opening up opportunities for education and entrepreneurship. Immigration could speed the recovery from the Second Depression and maybe even revitalize our dying Rust Belt cities.

Now, what about the downsides? By increasing the supply of labor faster than they increase the demand for labor, immigrants could reduce wages. There is some evidence that immigrants reduce wages, particularly for low-skill workers. This effect is rather small, however; in many studies it’s not even statistically significant (PDF link). A 10% increase in low-skill immigrants leads to about a 3% decrease in low-skill wages (PDF link). The total economy grows, but wages decrease at the bottom, so there is a net redistribution of wealth upward.

Immigration is one of the ways that globalization increases within-nation inequality even as it decreases between-nation inequality; you move the poor people to rich countries, and they become less poor than they were, but still poorer than most of the people in those rich countries, which increases the inequality there. On average the world becomes better off, but it can seem bad for the rich countries, especially the people in rich countries who were already relatively poor. Because they distribute wealth by birthright, national borders actually create something analogous to the privilege of feudal lords, albeit to a much larger segment of the population. (Much larger: Here’s a right-wing site trying to argue that the median American is in the top 1% of income by world standards; neat trick, because Americans comprise 4% of the world population—so our top half makes up 2% of the world’s population by themselves. Yet somehow apparently that 2% of the population is the top 1%? Also, the US isn’t the only rich country; have you heard of, say, Europe?)

There’s also a lot of variation in the literature as to the size—or even direction—of the effect of immigration on low-skill wages. But since the theory makes sense and the preponderance of the evidence is toward a moderate reduction in wages for low-skill native workers, let’s assume that this is indeed the case.

First of all I have to go back to my original point: These immigrants are getting higher wages than they would have in the countries they left. (That part is usually even true of the high-skill immigrants.) So if you’re worried about low wages for low-skill workers, why are you only worried about that for workers who were born on this side of the fence? There’s something deeply nationalistic—if not outright racist—inherent in the complaint that Americans will have lower pay or lose their jobs when Mexicans come here. Don’t Mexicans also deserve jobs and higher pay?

Aside from that, do we really want to preserve higher wages at the cost of economic efficiency? Are high wages an end in themselves? It seems to me that what we’re really concerned about is welfare—we want the people of our society to live better lives. High wages are one way to do that, but not the only way; a basic income could reverse that upward redistribution of wealth, taking the economic benefits of the immigration that normally accrue toward the top and giving them to the bottom. As I already talked about in an earlier post, a basic income is a lot more efficient than trying to mess around with wages. Markets are very powerful; we shouldn’t always accept what they do, but we should also be careful when we interfere with them. If the market is trying to drive certain wages down, that means that there is more desire to do that kind of work then there is work of that kind that needs done. The wage change creates a market incentive for people to switch to more productive kinds of work. We should also be working to create opportunities to make that switch—funding free education, for instance—because an incentive without an opportunity is a bit like pointing a gun at someone’s head and ordering them to give birth to a unicorn.

So on the one hand we have the increase in local inequality and the potential reduction in low-skill wages; those are basically the only downsides. On the other hand, we have increases in short-term and long-term economic growth, lower global inequality, more spending, more jobs, a younger population with less strain on the retirement system, more entrepreneurship, and above all, the enormous lifelong benefits to the immigrants themselves that motivated them to move in the first place. It seems pretty obvious to me: we can enact policies to reduce the downsides, but above all we must open our borders.