Games as economic simulations—and education tools

Mar 5, JDN 2457818 [Sun]

Moore’s Law is a truly astonishing phenomenon. Now as we are well into the 21st century (I’ve lived more of my life in the 21st century than the 20th now!) it may finally be slowing down a little bit, but it has had quite a run, and even this could be a temporary slowdown due to economic conditions or the lull before a new paradigm (quantum computing?) matures. Since at least 1975, the computing power of an individual processor has doubled approximately every year and a half; that means it has doubled over 25 times—or in other words that it has increased by a factor of over 30 million. I now have in my pocket a smartphone with several thousand times the processing speed of the guidance computer of the Saturn V that landed on the Moon.

This meteoric increase in computing power has had an enormous impact on the way science is done, including economics. Simple theoretical models that could be solved by hand are now being replaced by enormous simulation models that have to be processed by computers. It is now commonplace to devise models with systems of dozens of nonlinear equations that are literally impossible to solve analytically, and just solve them iteratively with computer software.

But one application of this technology that I believe is currently underutilized is video games.

As a culture, we still have the impression that video games are for children; even games like Dragon Age and Grand Theft Auto that are explicitly for adults (and really quite inappropriate for children!) are viewed as in some sense “childish”—that no serious adult would be involved with such frivolities. The same cultural critics who treat Shakespeare’s vagina jokes as the highest form of art are liable to dismiss the poignant critique of war in Call of Duty: Black Ops or the reflections on cultural diversity in Skyrim as mere puerility.

But video games are an art form with a fundamentally greater potential than any other. Now that graphics are almost photorealistic, there is really nothing you can do in a play or a film that you can’t do in a video game—and there is so, so much more that you can only do in a game.
In what other medium can we witness the spontaneous emergence and costly aftermath of a war? Yet EVE Online has this sort of event every year or so—just today there was a surprise attack involving hundreds of players that destroyed thousands of hours’—and dollars’—worth of starships, something that has more or less become an annual tradition. A few years ago there was a massive three-faction war that destroyed over $300,000 in ships and has now been commemorated as “the Bloodbath of B-R5RB”.
Indeed, the immersion and interactivity of games present an opportunity to do nothing less than experimental macroeconomics. For generations it has been impossible, or at least absurdly unethical, to ever experimentally manipulate an entire macroeconomy. But in a video game like EVE Online or Second Life, we can now do so easily, cheaply, and with little or no long-term harm to the participants—and we can literally control everything in the experiment. Forget the natural resource constraints and currency exchange rates—we can change the laws of physics if we want. (Indeed, EVE‘s whole trade network is built around FTL jump points, and in Second Life it’s a basic part of the interface that everyone can fly like Superman.)

This provides untold potential for economic research. With sufficient funding, we could build a game that would allow us to directly test hypotheses about the most fundamental questions of economics: How do governments emerge and maintain security? How is the rule of law sustained, and when can it be broken? What controls the value of money and the rate of inflation? What is the fundamental cause of unemployment, and how can it be corrected? What influences the rate of technological development? How can we maximize the rate of economic growth? What effect does redistribution of wealth have on employment and output? I envision a future where we can directly simulate these questions with thousands of eager participants, varying the subtlest of parameters and carrying out events over any timescale we like from seconds to centuries.

Nor is the potential of games in economics limited to research; it also has enormous untapped potential in education. I’ve already seen in my classes how tabletop-style games with poker chips can teach a concept better in a few minutes than hours of writing algebra derivations on the board; but custom-built video games could be made that would teach economics far better still, and to a much wider audience. In a well-designed game, people could really feel the effects of free trade or protectionism, not just on themselves as individuals but on entire nations that they control—watch their GDP numbers go down as they scramble to produce in autarky what they could have bought for half the price if not for the tariffs. They could see, in real time, how in the absence of environmental regulations and Pigovian taxes the actions of millions of individuals could despoil our planet for everyone.

Of course, games are fundamentally works of fiction, subject to the Fictional Evidence Fallacy and only as reliable as their authors make them. But so it is with all forms of art. I have no illusions about the fact that we will never get the majority of the population to regularly read peer-reviewed empirical papers. But perhaps if we are clever enough in the games we offer them to play, we can still convey some of the knowledge that those papers contain. We could also update and expand the games as new information comes in. Instead of complaining that our students are spending time playing games on their phones and tablets, we could actually make education into games that are as interesting and entertaining as the ones they would have been playing. We could work with the technology instead of against it. And in a world where more people have access to a smartphone than to a toilet, we could finally bring high-quality education to the underdeveloped world quickly and cheaply.

Rapid growth in computing power has given us a gift of great potential. But soon our capacity will widen even further. Even if Moore’s Law slows down, computing power will continue to increase for awhile yet. Soon enough, virtual reality will finally take off and we’ll have even greater depth of immersion available. The future is bright—if we can avoid this corporatist cyberpunk dystopia we seem to be hurtling toward, of course.

How not to do financial transaction tax

JDN 2457520

I strongly support the implementation of a financial transaction tax; like a basic income, it’s one of those economic policy ideas that are so brilliantly simple it’s honestly a little hard to believe how incredibly effective they are at making the world a better place. You mean we might be able to end stock market crashes just by implementing this little tax that most people will never even notice, and it will raise enough revenue to pay for food stamps? Yes, a financial transaction tax is that good.

So, keep that in mind when I say this:

TruthOut’s proposal for a financial transaction tax is somewhere between completely economically illiterate and outright insane.

They propose a 10% transaction tax on stocks and a 1% transaction tax on notional value of derivatives, then offer a “compromise” of 5% on stocks and 0.5% on derivatives. They make a bunch of revenue projections based on these that clearly amount to nothing but multiplying the current amount of transactions by the tax rate, which is so completely wrong we now officially have a left-wing counterpart to trickle-down voodoo economics.

Their argument is basically like this (I’m paraphrasing): “If we have to pay 5% sales tax on groceries, why shouldn’t you have to pay 5% on stocks?”

But that’s not how any of this works.

Demand for most groceries is very inelastic, especially in the aggregate. While you might change which groceries you’ll buy depending on their respective prices, and you may buy in bulk or wait for sales, over a reasonably long period (say a year) across a large population (say all of Michigan or all of the US), total amount of spending on groceries is extremely stable. People only need a certain amount of food, and they generally buy that amount and then stop.

So, if you implement a 5% sales tax that applies to groceries (actually sales tax in most states doesn’t apply to most groceries, but honestly it probably should—offset the regressiveness by providing more social services), people would just… spend about 5% more on groceries. Probably a bit less than that, actually, since suppliers would absorb some of the tax; but demand is much less elastic for groceries than supply, so buyers would bear most of the incidence of the tax. (It does not matter how the tax is collected; see my tax incidence series for further explanation of why.)

Other goods like clothing and electronics are a bit more elastic, so you’d get some deadweight loss from the sales tax; but at a typical 5% to 10% in the US this is pretty minimal, and even the hefty 20% or 30% VATs in some European countries only have a moderate effect. (Denmark’s 180% sales tax on cars seems a bit excessive to me, but it is Pigovian to disincentivize driving, so it also has very little deadweight loss.)

But what would happen if you implemented a 5% transaction tax on stocks? The entire stock market would immediately collapse.

A typical return on stocks is between 5% and 15% per year. As a rule of thumb, let’s say about 10%.

If you pay 5% sales tax and trade once per year, tax just cut your return in half.

If you pay 5% sales tax and trade twice per year, tax destroyed your return completely.

Even if you only trade once every five years, a 5% sales tax means that instead of your stocks being worth 61% more after those 5 years they are only worth 53% more. Your annual return has been reduced from 10% to 8.9%.

But in fact there are many perfectly legitimate reasons to trade as often as monthly, and a 5% tax would make monthly trading completely unviable.

Even if you could somehow stop everyone from pulling out all their money just before the tax takes effect, you would still completely dry up the stock market as a source of funding for all but the most long-term projects. Corporations would either need to finance their entire operations out of cash or bonds, or collapse and trigger a global depression.

Derivatives are even more extreme. The notional value of derivatives is often ludicrously huge; we currently have over a quadrillion dollars in notional value of outstanding derivatives. Assume that say 10% of those are traded every year, and we’re talking $100 trillion in notional value of transactions. At 0.5% you’re trying to take in a tax of $500 billion. That sounds fantastic—so much money!—but in fact what you should be thinking about is that’s a really strong avoidance incentive. You don’t think banks will find a way to restructure their trading practices—or stop trading altogether—to avoid this tax?

Honestly, maybe a total end to derivatives trading would be tolerable. I certainly think we need to dramatically reduce the amount of derivatives trading, and much of what is being traded—credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, synthetic collateralized debt obligations, etc.—really should not exist and serves no real function except to obscure fraud and speculation. (Credit default swaps are basically insurance you can buy on other people’s companies. There’s a reason you’re not allowed to buy insurance on other people’s stuff!) Interest rate swaps aren’t terrible (when they’re not being used to perpetrate the largest white-collar crime in history), but they also aren’t necessary. You might be able to convince me that commodity futures and stock options are genuinely useful, though even these are clearly overrated. (Fun fact: Futures markets have been causing financial crises since at least Classical Rome.) Exchange-traded funds are technically derivatives, and they’re just fine (actually ETFs are very low-risk, because they are inherently diversified—which is why you should probably be buying them); but actually their returns are more like stocks, so the 0.5% might not be insanely high in that case.

But stocks? We kind of need those. Equity financing has been the foundation of capitalism since the very beginning. Maybe we could conceivably go to a fully debt-financed system, but it would be a radical overhaul of our entire financial system and is certainly not something to be done lightly.

Indeed, TruthOut even seems to think we could apply the same sales tax rate to bonds, which means that debt financing would also collapse, and now we’re definitely talking about global depression. How exactly is anyone supposed to finance new investments, if they can’t sell stock or bonds? And a 5% tax on the face value of stock or bonds, for all practical purposes, is saying that you can’t sell stock or bonds. It would make no one want to buy them.

Wealthy investors buying of stocks and bonds is essentially no different than average folks buying food, clothing or other real “goods and services.”

Yes it is. It is fundamentally different.

People buy goods to use them. People buy stocks to make money selling them.

This seems perfectly obvious, but it is a vital distinction that seems to be lost on TruthOut.

When you buy an apple or a shoe or a phone or a car, you care how much it costs relative to how useful it is to you; if we make it a bit more expensive, that will make you a bit less likely to buy it—but probably not even one-to-one so that a 5% tax would reduce purchases by 5%; it would probably be more like a 2% reduction. Demand for goods is inelastic. Taxing them will raise a lot of revenue and not reduce the quantity purchased very much.

But when you buy a stock or a bond or an interest rate swap, you care how much it costs relative to what you will be able to sell it for—you care about not its utility but its return. So a 5% tax will reduce the amount of buying and selling by substantially more than 5%—it could well be 50% or even 100%. Demand for financial assets is elastic. Taxing them will not raise much revenue but will substantially reduce the quantity purchased.

Now, for some financial assets, we want to reduce the quantity purchased—the derivatives market is clearly too big, and high-frequency trading that trades thousands of times per second can do nothing but destabilize the financial system. Joseph Stiglitz supports a small financial transaction tax precisely because it would substantially reduce high-frequency trading, and he’s a Nobel Laureate as you may recall. Naturally, he was excluded from the SEC hearings on the subject, because reasons. But the figures Stiglitz is talking about (and I agree with) are on the order of 0.1% for stocks and 0.01% for derivatives—50 times smaller than what TruthOut is advocating.

At the end, they offer another “compromise”:

Okay, half it again, to a 2.5 percent tax on stocks and bonds and a 0.25 percent on derivative trades. That certainly won’t discourage stock and bond trading by the rich (not that that is an all bad idea either).

Yes it will. By a lot. That’s the whole point.

A financial transaction tax is a great idea whose time has come; let’s not ruin its reputation by setting it at a preposterous value. Just as a $15 minimum wage is probably a good idea but a $250 minimum wage is definitely a terrible idea, a 0.1% financial transaction tax could be very beneficial but a 5% financial transaction tax would clearly be disastrous.

Tax Incidence Revisited, Part 1: The downside of taxes

JDN 2457345 EST 22:02

As I was writing this, it was very early (I had to wake up at 04:30) and I was groggy, because we were on an urgent road trip to Pennsylvania for the funeral of my aunt who died quite suddenly a few days ago. I have since edited this post more thoroughly to minimize the impact of my sleep deprivation upon its content. Actually maybe this is a good thing; the saying goes, “write drunk, edit sober” and sleep deprivation and alcohol have remarkably similar symptoms, probably because alcohol is GABA-ergic and GABA is involved in sleep regulation.

Awhile ago I wrote a long post on tax incidence, but the primary response I got was basically the online equivalent of a perplexed blank stare. Struck once again by the Curse of Knowledge, I underestimated the amount of background knowledge necessary to understand my explanation. But tax incidence is very important for public policy, so I really would like to explain it.

Therefore I am now starting again, slower, in smaller pieces. Today’s piece is about the downsides of taxation in general, why we don’t just raise taxes as high as we feel like and make the government roll in dough.

To some extent this is obvious; if income tax were 100%, why would anyone bother working for a salary? You might still work for fulfillment, or out of a sense of duty, or simply because you enjoy what you do—after all, most artists and musicians are hardly in it for the money. But many jobs are miserable and not particularly fulfilling, yet still need to get done. How many janitors or bus drivers work purely for the sense of fulfillment it gives them? Mostly they do it to pay the bills—and if income tax were 100%, it wouldn’t anymore. The formal economy would basically collapse, and then nobody would end up actually paying that 100% tax—so the government would actually get very little revenue, if any.

At the other end of the scale, it’s kind of obvious that if your taxes are all 0% you don’t get any revenue. This is actually more feasible than it may sound; provided you spend only a very small amount (say, 4% of GDP, though that’s less than any country actually spends—maybe you could do 6% like Bangladesh) and you can still get people to accept your currency, you could, in principle, have a government that funds its spending entirely by means of printing money, and could do this indefinitely. In practice, that has never been done, and the really challenging part is getting people to accept your money if you don’t collect taxes in it. One of the more counter-intuitive aspects of modern monetary theory (or perhaps I should capitalize it, Modern Monetary Theory, though the part I agree with is not that different from standard Keynesian theory) is that taxation is the primary mechanism by which money acquires its value.

And then of course with intermediate tax rates such as 20%, 30%, and 50% that actual countries actually use, we do get some positive amount of revenue.

Everything I’ve said so far may seem pretty obvious. Yeah, usually taxes raise revenue, but if you taxed at 0% or 100% they wouldn’t; so what?

Well, this leads to quite an important result. Assuming that tax revenue is continuous (which isn’t quite true, but since we can collect taxes in fractions of a percent and pay in pennies, it’s pretty close), it follows directly from the Extreme Value Theorem that there is in fact a revenue-maximizing tax rate. Both below and above that tax rate, the government takes in less total money. These theorems don’t tell us what the revenue-maximizing rate is; but they tell us that it must exist, somewhere between 0% and 100%.

Indeed, it follows that there is what we call the Laffer Curve, a graph of tax revenue as a function of tax rate, and it is in fact a curve, as opposed to the straight line it would be if taxes had no effect on the rest of the economy.

Very roughly, it looks something like this (the blue curve is my sketch of the real-world Laffer curve, while the red line is what it would be if taxes had no distortionary effects):


Now, the Laffer curve has been abused many times; in particular, it’s been used to feed into the “trickle-down” “supply-sideReaganomics that has been rightly derided as “voodoo economics” by serious economists. Jeb Bush (or should I say, Jeb!) and Marco Rubio would have you believe that we are on the right edge of the Laffer curve, and we could actually increase tax revenue by cutting taxes, particularly on capital gains and incomes at the top 1%; that’s obviously false. We tried that, it didn’t work. Even theoretically we probably should have known that it wouldn’t; but now that we’ve actually done the experiment and it failed, there should be no serious doubt anymore.

No, we are on the left side of the Laffer curve, where increasing taxes increases revenue, much as you’d intuitively expect. It doesn’t quite increase one-to-one, because adding more taxes does make the economy less efficient; but from where we currently stand, a 1% increase in taxes leads to about a 0.9% increase in revenue (actually estimated as between 0.78% and 0.99%).

Denmark may be on the right side of the Laffer curve, where they could raise more revenue by decreasing tax rates (even then I’m not so sure). But Denmark’s tax rates are considerably higher than ours; while in the US we pay about 27% of GDP in taxes, folks in Denmark pay 49% of GDP in taxes.

The fact remains, however, that there is a Laffer curve, and no serious economist would dispute this. Increasing taxes does in fact create distortions in the economy, and as a result raising tax rates does not increase revenue in a one-to-one fashion. When calculating the revenue from a new tax, you must include not only the fact that the government will get an increased portion, but also that the total amount of income will probably decrease.

Now, I must say probably, because it does depend on what exactly you are taxing. If you tax something that is perfectly inelastic—the same amount of it is going to be made and sold no matter what—then total income will remain exactly the same after the tax. It may be distributed differently, but the total won’t change. This is one of the central justifications for a land tax; land is almost perfectly inelastic, so taxing it allows us to raise revenue without reducing total income.

In fact, there are certain kinds of taxes which increase total income, which makes them basically no-brainer taxes that should always be implemented if at all feasible. These are Pigovian taxes, which are taxes on products with negative externalities; when a product causes harm to other people (the usual example is pollution of air and water), taxing that product equal to the harm caused provides a source of government revenue that also increases the efficiency of the economy as a whole. If we had a tax on carbon emissions that was used to fund research into sustainable energy, this would raise our total GDP in the long run. Taxes on oil and natural gas are not “job killing”; they are job creating. This is why we need a carbon tax, a higher gasoline tax, and a financial transaction tax (to reduce harmful speculation); it’s also why we already have high taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

The alcohol tax is one of the great success stories of Pigouvian taxation.The alcohol tax is actually one of the central factors holding our crime rate so low right now. Another big factor is overall economic growth and anti-poverty programs. The most important factor, however, is lead, or rather the lack thereof; environmental regulations reducing pollutants like lead and mercury from the environment are the leading factor in reducing crime rates over the last generation. Yes, that’s right—our fall in crime had little to do with state police, the FBI, the DEA, or the ATF; our most effective crime-fighting agency is the EPA. This is really not that surprising, as a cognitive economist. Most crime is impulsive and irrational, or else born of economic desperation. Rational crime that it would make sense to punish harshly as a deterrent is quite rare (well, except for white-collar crime, which of course we don’t punish harshly enough—I know I harp on this a lot, but HSBC laundered money for terrorists). Maybe crime would be more common if we had no justice system in place at all, but making our current system even harsher accomplishes basically nothing. Far better to tax the alcohol that leads good people to bad decisions.

It also matters whom you tax, though one of my goals in this tax incidence series is to explain why that doesn’t mean quite what most people think it does. The person who writes the check to the government is not necessarily the person who really pays the tax. The person who really pays is the one whose net income ends up lower after the tax is implemented. Often these are the same person; but often they aren’t, for fundamental reasons I’m hoping to explain.

For now, it’s worth pointing out that a tax which primarily hits the top 1% is going to have a very different impact on the economy than one which hits the entire population. Because of the income and substitution effects, poor people tend to work less as their taxes go up, but rich people tend to work more. Even within income brackets, a tax that hits doctors and engineers is going to have a different effect than a tax that hits bankers and stock traders, and a tax that hits teachers is going to have a different effect than a tax that hits truck drivers. A tax on particular products or services will reduce demand for those products or services, which is good if that’s what you’re trying to do (such as alcohol) but not so good if it isn’t.

So, yes, there are cases where raising taxes can actually increase, or at least not reduce, total income. These are the exception, however; as a general rule, in a Pirate Code sort of way, taxes reduce total income. It’s not simply that income goes down for everyone but the government (which would again be sort of obvious); income goes down for everyone including the government. The difference is simply lost, wasted away by a loss in economic efficiency. We call that difference deadweight loss, and for a poorly-designed tax it can actually far exceed the revenue received.

I think an extreme example may help to grasp the intuition: Suppose we started taxing cars at 200,000%, so that a typical new car costs something like $40 million with taxes. (That’s not a Lamborghini, mind you; that’s a Honda Accord.) What would happen? Nobody is going to buy cars anymore. Overnight, you’ve collapsed the entire auto industry. Dozens of companies go bankrupt, thousands of employees get laid off, the economy immediately falls into recession. And after all that, your car tax will raise no revenue at all, because not a single car will sell. It’s just pure deadweight loss.

That’s an intentionally extreme example; most real-world taxes in fact create less deadweight loss than they raise in revenue. But most real-world taxes do in fact create deadweight loss, and that’s a good reason to be concerned about any new tax.

In general, higher taxes create lower total income, or equivalently higher deadweight loss. All other things equal, lower taxes are therefore better.

What most Americans don’t seem to quite grasp is that all other things are not equal. That tax revenue is central to the proper functioning of our government and our monetary system. We need a certain amount of taxes in order to ensure that we can maintain a stable currency and still pay for things like Medicare, Social Security, and the Department of Defense (to name our top three budget items).

Alternatively, we could not spend so much on those things, and that is a legitimate question of public policy. I personally think that Medicare and Social Security are very good things (and I do have data to back that up—Medicare saves thousands of lives), but they aren’t strictly necessary for basic government functioning; we could get rid of them, it’s just that it would be a bad idea. As for the defense budget, some kind of defense budget is necessary for national security, but I don’t think I’m going out on a very big limb here when I say that one country making 40% of all world military spending probably isn’t.

We can’t have it both ways; if you want Medicare, Social Security, and the Department of Defense, you need to have taxes. “Cutting spending” always means cutting spending on something—so what is it you want to cut? A lot of people seem to think that we waste a huge amount of money on pointless bureaucracy, pork-barrel spending, or foreign aid; but that’s simply not true. All government administration is less than 1% of the budget, and most of it is necessary; earmarks are also less than 1%; foreign aid is also less than 1%. Since our deficit is about 15% of spending, we could eliminate all of those things and we’d barely put a dent in it.

Americans don’t like taxes; I understand that. It’s basically one of our founding principles, in fact, though “No taxation without representation” seems to have mutated of late into simply “No taxation”, or maybe “Read my lips, no new taxes!” It’s never pleasant to see that chunk taken out of your paycheck before you even get it. (Though one thing I hope to explain in this series is that these figures are really not very meaningful; there’s no particular reason to think you’d have made the same gross salary if those taxes hadn’t been present.)

There are in fact sound economic reasons to keep taxes low. The Laffer Curve is absolutely a real thing, even though most of its applications are wrong. But sometimes we need taxes to be higher, and that’s a tradeoff we have to make.We need to have a serious public policy discussion about where our priorities lie, not keep trading sound-bytes about “cutting wasteful spending” and “job-killing tax hikes”.