The Irvine Company needs some serious antitrust enforcement

Dec 17, JDN 2458105

I probably wouldn’t even have known about this issue if I hadn’t ended up living in Irvine.

The wealthiest real estate magnate in the United States is Donald Bren, sole owner of the Irvine Company. His net wealth is estimated at $15 billion, which puts him behind the likes of Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, but well above Donald Trump even at his most optimistic estimates.

Where did he get all this wealth?

The Irvine Company isn’t even particularly shy about its history, though of course they put a positive spin on it. Right there on their own website they talk about how it used to be a series of ranches farmed by immigrants. Look a bit deeper into their complaints about “squatters” and it becomes apparent that the main reason they were able to get so rich is that the immigrant tenant farmers whose land they owned were disallowed by law from owning real estate. (Not to mention how it was originally taken from Native American tribes, as most of the land in the US was.) Then of course the land has increased in price and been passed down from generation to generation.

This isn’t capitalism. Capitalism requires a competitive market with low barriers of entry and trade in real physical capital—machines, vehicles, factories. The ownership of land by a single family that passes down its title through generations while extracting wealth from tenant farmers who aren’t allowed to own anything has another name. We call it feudalism.

The Irvine Company is privately-held, and thus not required to publish its finances the way a publicly-traded company would be, so I can’t tell you exactly what assets its owns or how much profit it makes. But I can tell you that it owns over 57,000 housing units—and there are only 96,000 housing units in the city of Irvine, so that means they literally own 60% of the city. They don’t just own houses either; they also own most of the commercial districts, parks, and streets.

As a proportion of all the housing in the United States, that isn’t so much. Even compared to Southern California (the most densely populated region in North America), it may not seem all that extravagant. But within the city of Irvine itself, this is getting dangerously close to a monopoly. Housing is expensive all over California, so they can’t be entirely blamed—but is it really that hard to believe that letting one company own 60% of your city is going to increase rents?

This is sort of thing that calls for a bold and unequivocal policy response. The Irvine Company should be forced to subdivide itself into multiple companies—perhaps Irvine Residential, Irvine Commercial, and Irvine Civic—and then those companies should be made publicly-traded, and a majority of their shares immediately distributed to the residents of the city. Unlike most land reform proposals, selecting who gets shares is actually quite straightforward: Anyone who pays rent on an Irvine Company property receives a share.

Land reform has a checkered history to say the least, which is probably why policymakers are reluctant to take this sort of approach. But this is a land reform that could be handled swiftly, by a very simple mechanism, with very clear rules. Moreover, it is entirely within the rule of law, as the Irvine Company is obviously at this point an illegitimate monopoly in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, Clayton Antitrust Act, and Federal Trade Commission Act. The Herfindahl-Hirschman Index for real estate in the city of Irvine would be at least 3600, well over the standard threshold of 2500 that FTC guidelines consider prima facie evidence of an antitrust violation in the market. Formally, the land reform could be accomplished by collecting damages in an amount necessary to purchase the shares at the (mandatory) IPO, then the beneficiaries of the damages paid in shares would be the residents of Irvine. The FTC is also empowered to bring criminal charges if necessary.

Oddly, most of the talk about the Irvine Company among residents of Irvine centers around their detailed policy decisions, whether expanding road X was a good idea, how you feel about the fact that they built complex Y. (There’s also a bizarre reverence for the Irvine Master Plan; people speak of it as if it were the US Constitution, when it’s actually more like Amazon.com’s five-year revenue targets. This is a for-profit company. Their plan is about taking your money.) This is rather like debating whether or not you have a good king; even if you do, you’re still a feudal subject. No single individual or corporation should have that kind of power over the population of an entire city. This is not a small city, either; Irvine has about three-quarters of the population of Iceland, or a third the population of Boston. Take half of Donald Bren’s $15 billion, divide it evenly over the 250,000 people of the city, and each one gets $30,000. That’s a conservative estimate of how much monopolistic rent the Irvine Company has extracted from the people of Irvine.

By itself, redistributing the assets of the Irvine Company wouldn’t solve the problem of high rents in Southern California. But I think it would help, and I’m honestly having trouble seeing the downsides. The only people who seem to be harmed are billionaires who inherited wealth that was originally extracted from serfs. Like I said, this is within the law, and wouldn’t require new legislation. We would only need to aggressively enforce laws that have been on the books for a century. It doesn’t even seem like it should be politically unpopular, as you’re basically giving a check for tens of thousands of dollars to each voting resident in the city.

Of course, it won’t happen. As usual, I’m imagining more justice in the world than there actually has ever been.

Markets value rich people more

Feb 26, JDN 2457811

Competitive markets are optimal at maximizing utility, as long as you value rich people more.

That is literally a theorem in neoclassical economics. I had previously thought that this was something most economists didn’t realize; I had delusions of grandeur that maybe I could finally convince them that this is the case. But no, it turns out this is actually a well-known finding; it’s just that somehow nobody seems to care. Or if they do care, they never talk about it. For all the thousands of papers and articles about the distortions created by minimum wage and capital gains tax, you’d think someone could spare the time to talk about the vastly larger fundamental distortions created by the structure of the market itself.

It’s not as if this is something completely hopeless we could never deal with. A basic income would go a long way toward correcting this distortion, especially if coupled with highly progressive taxes. By creating a hard floor and a soft ceiling on income, you can reduce the inequality that makes these distortions so large.

The basics of the theorem are quite straightforward, so I think it’s worth explaining them here. It’s extremely general; it applies anywhere that goods are allocated by market prices and different individuals have wildly different amounts of wealth.

Suppose that each person has a certain amount of wealth W to spend. Person 1 has W1, person 2 has W2, and so on. They all have some amount of happiness, defined by a utility function, which I’ll assume is only dependent on wealth; this is a massive oversimplification of course, but it wouldn’t substantially change my conclusions to include other factors—it would just make everything more complicated. (In fact, including altruistic motives would make the whole argument stronger, not weaker.) Thus I can write each person’s utility as a function U(W). The rate of change of this utility as wealth increases, the marginal utility of wealth, is denoted U'(W).

By the law of diminishing marginal utility, the marginal utility of wealth U'(W) is decreasing. That is, the more wealth you have, the less each new dollar is worth to you.

Now suppose people are buying goods. Each good C provides some amount of marginal utility U'(C) to the person who buys it. This can vary across individuals; some people like Pepsi, others Coke. This marginal utility is also decreasing; a house is worth a lot more to you if you are living in the street than if you already have a mansion. Ideally we would want the goods to go to the people who want them the most—but as you’ll see in a moment, markets systematically fail to do this.

If people are making their purchases rationally, each person’s willingness-to-pay P for a given good C will be equal to their marginal utility of that good, divided by their marginal utility of wealth:

P = U'(C)/U'(W)

Now consider this from the perspective of society as a whole. If you wanted to maximize utility, you’d equalize marginal utility across individuals (by the Extreme Value Theorem). The idea is that if marginal utility is higher for one person, you should give that person more, because the benefit of what you give them will be larger that way; and if marginal utility is lower for another person, you should give that person less, because the benefit of what you give them will be smaller. When everyone is equal, you are at the maximum.

But market prices don’t actually do this. Instead they equalize over willingness-to-pay. So if you’ve got two individuals 1 and 2, instead of having this:

U'(C1) = U'(C2)

you have this:

P1 = P2

which translates to:

U'(C1)/U'(W1) = U'(C2)/U'(W2)

If the marginal utilities were the same, U'(W1) = U'(W2), we’d be fine; these would give the same results. But that would only happen if W1 = W2, that is, if the two individuals had the same amount of wealth.

Now suppose we were instead maximizing weighted utility, where each person gets a weighting factor A based on how “important” they are or something. If your A is higher, your utility matters more. If we maximized this new weighted utility, we would end up like this:

A1*U'(C1) = A2*U'(C2)

Because person 1’s utility counts for more, their marginal utility also counts for more. This seems very strange; why are we valuing some people more than others? On what grounds?

Yet this is effectively what we’ve already done by using market prices.
Just set:
A = 1/U'(W)

Since marginal utility of wealth is decreasing, 1/U'(W) is higher precisely when W is higher.

How much higher? Well, that depends on the utility function. The two utility functions I find most plausible are logarithmic and harmonic. (Actually I think both apply, one to other-directed spending and the other to self-directed spending.)

If utility is logarithmic:

U = ln(W)

Then marginal utility is inversely proportional:

U'(W) = 1/W

In that case, your value as a human being, as spoken by the One True Market, is precisely equal to your wealth:

A = 1/U'(W) = W

If utility is harmonic, matters are even more severe.

U(W) = 1-1/W

Marginal utility goes as the inverse square of wealth:

U'(W) = 1/W^2

And thus your value, according to the market, is equal to the square of your wealth:

A = 1/U'(W) = W^2

What are we really saying here? Hopefully no one actually believes that Bill Gates is really morally worth 400 trillion times as much as a starving child in Malawi, as the calculation from harmonic utility would imply. (Bill Gates himself certainly doesn’t!) Even the logarithmic utility estimate saying that he’s worth 20 million times as much is pretty hard to believe.

But implicitly, the market “believes” that, because when it decides how to allocate resources, something that is worth 1 microQALY to Bill Gates (about the value a nickel dropped on the floor to you or I) but worth 20 QALY (twenty years of life!) to the Malawian child, will in either case be priced at $8,000, and since the child doesn’t have $8,000, it will probably go to Mr. Gates. Perhaps a middle-class American could purchase it, provided it was worth some 0.3 QALY to them.

Now consider that this is happening in every transaction, for every good, in every market. Goods are not being sold to the people who get the most value out of them; they are being sold to the people who have the most money.

And suddenly, the entire edifice of “market efficiency” comes crashing down like a house of cards. A global market that quite efficiently maximizes willingness-to-pay is so thoroughly out of whack when it comes to actually maximizing utility that massive redistribution of wealth could enormously increase human welfare, even if it turned out to cut our total output in half—if utility is harmonic, even if it cut our total output to one-tenth its current value.

The only way to escape this is to argue that marginal utility of wealth is not decreasing, or at least decreasing very, very slowly. Suppose for instance that utility goes as the 0.9 power of wealth:

U(W) = W^0.9

Then marginal utility goes as the -0.1 power of wealth:

U'(W) = 0.9 W^(-0.1)

On this scale, Bill Gates is only worth about 5 times as much as the Malawian child, which in his particular case might actually be too small—if a trolley is about to kill either Bill Gates or 5 Malawian children, I think I save Bill Gates, because he’ll go on to save many more than 5 Malawian children. (Of course, substitute Donald Trump or Charles Koch and I’d let the trolley run over him without a second thought if even a single child is at stake, so it’s not actually a function of wealth.) In any case, a 5 to 1 range across the whole range of human wealth is really not that big a deal. It would introduce some distortions, but not enough to justify any redistribution that would meaningfully reduce overall output.

Of course, that commits you to saying that $1 to a Malawian child is only worth about $1.50 to you or I and $5 to Bill Gates. If you can truly believe this, then perhaps you can sleep at night accepting the outcomes of neoclassical economics. But can you, really, believe that? If you had the choice between an intervention that would give $100 to each of 10,000 children in Malawi, and another that would give $50,000 to each of 100 billionaires, would you really choose the billionaires? Do you really think that the world would be better off if you did?

We don’t have precise measurements of marginal utility of wealth, unfortunately. At the moment, I think logarithmic utility is the safest assumption; it’s about the slowest decrease that is consistent with the data we have and it is very intuitive and mathematically tractable. Perhaps I’m wrong and the decrease is even slower than that, say W^(-0.5) (then the market only values billionaires as worth thousands of times as much as starving children). But there’s no way you can go as far as it would take to justify our current distribution of wealth. W^(-0.1) is simply not a plausible value.

And this means that free markets, left to their own devices, will systematically fail to maximize human welfare. We need redistribution—a lot of redistribution. Don’t take my word for it; the math says so.

No, Scandinavian countries aren’t parasites. They’re just… better.

Oct 1, JDN 2457663

If you’ve been reading my blogs for awhile, you likely have noticed me occasionally drop the hashtag #ScandinaviaIsBetter; I am in fact quite enamored of the Scandinavian (or Nordic more generally) model of economic and social policy.

But this is not a consensus view (except perhaps within Scandinavia itself), and I haven’t actually gotten around to presenting a detailed argument for just what it is that makes these countries so great.

I was inspired to do this by discussion with a classmate of mine (who shall remain nameless) who emphatically disagreed; he actually seems to think that American economic policy is somewhere near optimal (and to be fair, it might actually be near optimal, in the broad space of all possible economic policies—we are not Maoist China, we are not Somalia, we are not a nuclear wasteland). He couldn’t disagree with the statistics on how wealthy and secure and happy Scandinavian countries are, so instead he came up with this: “They are parasites.”

What he seemed to mean by this is that somehow Scandinavian countries achieve their success by sapping wealth from other countries, perhaps the rest of Europe, perhaps the world more generally. On this view, it’s not that Norway and Denmark aren’t rich because they economic policy basically figured out; no, they are somehow draining those riches from elsewhere.

This could scarcely be further from the truth.

But first, consider a couple of countries that are parasites, at least partially: Luxembourg and Singapore.

Singapore has an enormous trade surplus: 5.5 billion SGD per month, which is $4 billion per month, so almost $50 billion per year. They also have a positive balance of payments of $61 billion per year. Singapore’s total GDP is about $310 billion, so these are not small amounts. What does this mean? It means that Singapore is taking in a lot more money than they are spending out. They are effectively acting as mercantilists, or if you like as a profit-seeking corporation.

Moreover, Singapore is totally dependent on trade: their exports are over $330 billion per year, and their imports are over $280 billion. You may recognize each of these figures as comparable to the entire GDP of the country. Yes, their total trade is 200% of GDP. They aren’t really so much a country as a gigantic trading company.

What about Luxembourg? Well, they have a trade deficit of 420 million Euros per month, which is about $560 million per year. Their imports total about $2 billion per year, and their exports about $1.5 billion. Since Luxembourg’s total GDP is $56 billion, these aren’t unreasonably huge figures (total trade is about 6% of GDP); so Luxembourg isn’t a parasite in the sense that Singapore is.

No, what makes Luxembourg a parasite is the fact that 36% of their GDP is due to finance. Compare the US, where 12% of our GDP is finance—and we are clearly overfinancialized. Over a third of Luxembourg’s income doesn’t involve actually… doing anything. They hold onto other people’s money and place bets with it. Even insofar as finance can be useful, it should be only very slightly profitable, and definitely not more than 10% of GDP. As Stiglitz and Krugman agree (and both are Nobel Laureate economists), banking should be boring.

Do either of these arguments apply to Scandinavia? Let’s look at trade first. Denmark’s imports total about 42 billion DKK per month, which is about $70 billion per year. Their exports total about $90 billion per year. Denmark’s total GDP is $330 billion, so these numbers are quite reasonable. What are their main sectors? Manufacturing, farming, and fuel production. Notably, not finance.

Similar arguments hold for Sweden and Norway. They may be small countries, but they have diversified economies and strong production of real economic goods. Norway is probably overly dependent on oil exports, but they are specifically trying to move away from that right now. Even as it is, only about $90 billion of their $150 billion exports are related to oil, and exports in general are only about 35% of GDP, so oil is about 20% of Norway’s GDP. Compare that to Saudi Arabia, of which has 90% of its exports related to oil, accounting for 45% of GDP. If oil were to suddenly disappear, Norway would lose 20% of their GDP, dropping their per-capita GDP… all the way to the same as the US. (Terrifying!) But Saudi Arabia would suffer a total economic collapse, and their per capita-GDP would fall from where it is now at about the same as the US to about the same as Greece.

And at least oil actually does things. Oil exporting countries aren’t parasites so much as they are drug dealers. The world is “rolling drunk on petroleum”, and until we manage to get sober we’re going to continue to need that sweet black crude. Better we buy it from Norway than Saudi Arabia.

So, what is it that makes Scandinavia so great? Why do they have the highest happiness ratings, the lowest poverty rates, the best education systems, the lowest unemployment rates, the best social mobility and the highest incomes? To be fair, in most of these not literally every top spot is held by a Scandinavian country; Canada does well, Germany does well, the UK does well, even the US does well. Unemployment rates in particular deserve further explanation, because a lot of very poor countries report surprisingly low unemployment rates, such as Cambodia and Laos.

It’s also important to recognize that even great countries can have serious flaws, and the remnants of the feudal system in Scandinavia—especially in Sweden—still contribute to substantial inequality of wealth and power.

But in general, I think if you assembled a general index of overall prosperity of a country (or simply used one that already exists like the Human Development Index), you would find that Scandinavian countries are disproportionately represented at the very highest rankings. This calls out for some sort of explanation.

Is it simply that they are so small? They are certainly quite small; Norway and Denmark each have fewer people than the core of New York City, and Sweden has slightly more people than the Chicago metropolitan area. Put them all together, add in Finland and Iceland (which aren’t quite Scandinavia), and all together you have about the population of the New York City Combined Statistical Area.

But some of the world’s smallest countries are also its poorest. Samoa and Kiribati each have populations comparable to the city of Ann Arbor and per-capita GDPs 1/10 that of the US. Eritrea is the same size as Norway, and 70 times poorer. Burundi is slightly larger than Sweden, and has a per-capita GDP PPP of only $3.14 per day.

There’s actually a good statistical reason to expect that the smallest countries should vary the most in their incomes; you’re averaging over a smaller sample so you get more variance in the estimate. But this doesn’t explain why Norway is rich and Eritrea is poor. Incomes aren’t assigned randomly. This might be a reason to try comparing Norway to specifically New York City or Los Angeles rather than to the United States as a whole (Norway still does better, in case you were wondering—especially compared to LA); but it’s not a reason to say that Norway’s wealth doesn’t really count.

Is it because they are ethnically homogeneous? Yes, relatively speaking; but perhaps not as much as you imagine. 14% of Sweden’s population is immigrants, of which 64% are from outside the EU. 10% of Denmark’s population is comprised of immigrants, of which 66% came from non-Western countries. Immigrants are 13% of Norway’s population, of which half are from non-Western countries.

That’s certainly more ethnically homogeneous than the United States; 13% of our population is immigrants, which may sound comparable, but almost all non-immigrants in Scandinavia are of indigenous Nordic descent, all “White” by the usual classification. Meanwhile the United States is 64% non-Hispanic White, 16% Hispanic, 12% Black, 5% Asian, and 1% Native American or Pacific Islander.

Scandinavian countries are actually by some measures less homogeneous than the US in terms of religion, however; only 4% of Americans are not Christian (78.5%), atheist (16.1%), or Jewish (1.7%), and only 0.6% are Muslim. As much as In Sweden, on the other hand, 60% of the population is nominally Lutheran, but 80% is atheist, and 5% of the population is Muslim. So if you think of Christian/Muslim as the sharp divide (theologically this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to be the cultural norm in vogue), then Sweden has more religious conflict to worry about than the US does.

Moreover, there are some very ethnically homogeneous countries that are in horrible shape. North Korea is almost completely ethnically homogeneous, for example, as is Haiti. There does seem to be a correlation between higher ethnic diversity and lower economic prosperity, but Canada and the US are vastly more diverse than Japan and South Korea yet significantly richer. So clearly ethnicity is not the whole story here.

I do think ethnic homogeneity can partly explain why Scandinavian countries have the good policies they do; because humans are tribal, ethnic homogeneity engenders a sense of unity and cooperation, a notion that “we are all in this together”. That egalitarian attitude makes people more comfortable with some of the policies that make Scandinavia what it is, which I will get into at the end of this post.

What about culture? Is there something about Nordic ideas, those Viking traditions, that makes Scandinavia better? Miles Kimball has argued this; he says we need to import “hard work, healthy diets, social cohesion and high levels of trust—not Socialism”. And truth be told, it’s hard to refute this assertion, since it’s very difficult to isolate and control for cultural variables even though we know they are important.

But this difficulty in falsification is a reason to be cautious about such a hypothesis; it should be a last resort when all the more testable theories have been ruled out. I’m not saying culture doesn’t matter; it clearly does. But unless you can test it, “culture” becomes a theory that can explain just about anything—which means that it really explains nothing.

The “social cohesion and high levels of trust” part actually can be tested to some extent—and it is fairly well supported. High levels of trust are strongly correlated with economic prosperity. But we don’t really need to “import” that; the US is already near the top of the list in countries with the highest levels of trust.

I can’t really disagree with “good diet”, except to say that almost everywhere eats a better diet than the United States. The homeland of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola is frankly quite dystopian when it comes to rates of heart disease and diabetes. Given our horrible diet and ludicrously inefficient healthcare system, the only reason we live as long as we do is that we are an extremely rich country (so we can afford to pay the most for healthcare, for certain definitions of “afford”), and almost no one here smokes anymore. But good diet isn’t so much Scandinavian as it is… un-American.

But as for “hard work”, he’s got it backwards; the average number of work hours per week is 33 in Denmark and Norway, compared to 38 in the US. Among full-time workers in the US, the average number of hours per week is a whopping 47. Working hours in the US are much more intensive than anywhere in Europe, including Scandinavia. Though of course we are nowhere near the insane work addiction suffered by most East Asian countries; lately South Korea and Japan have been instituting massive reforms to try to get people to stop working themselves to death. And not surprisingly, work-related stress is a leading cause of death in the United States. If anything, we need to import some laziness, or at least a sense of work-life balance. (Indeed, I’m fairly sure that the only reason he said “hard work” is that it’s a cultural Applause Light in the US; being against hard work is like being against the American Flag or homemade apple pie. At this point, “we need more hard work” isn’t so much an assertion as it is a declaration of tribal membership.)

But none of these things adequately explains why poverty and inequality is so much lower in Scandinavia than it is in the United States, and there’s really a quite simple explanation.

Why is it that #ScandinaviaIsBetter? They’re not afraid to make rich people pay higher taxes so they can help poor people.

In the US, this idea of “redistribution of wealth” is anathema, even taboo; simply accusing a policy of being “redistributive” or “socialist” is for many Americans a knock-down argument against that policy. In Denmark, “socialist” is a meaningful descriptor; some policies are “socialist”, others “capitalist”, and these aren’t particularly weighted terms; it’s like saying here that a policy is “Keynesian” or “Monetarist”, or if that’s too obscure, saying that it’s “liberal” or “conservative”. People will definitely take sides, and it is a matter of political importance—but it’s inside the Overton Window. It’s not almost unthinkable as it is here.

If culture has an effect here, it likely comes from Scandinavia’s long traditions of egalitarianism. Going at least back to the Vikings, in theory at least (clearly not always in practice), people—or at least fellow Scandinavians—were considered equal participants in society, no one “better” or “higher” than anyone else. Even today, it is impolite in Denmark to express pride at your own accomplishments; there’s a sense that you are trying to present yourself as somehow more deserving than others. Honestly this attitude seems unhealthy to me, though perhaps preferable to the unrelenting narcissism of American society; but insofar as culture is making Scandinavia better, it’s almost certainly because this thoroughgoing sense of egalitarianism underlies all their economic policy. In the US, the rich are brilliant and the poor are lazy; in Denmark, the rich are fortunate and the poor are unlucky. (Which theory is more accurate? Donald Trump. I rest my case.)

To be clear, Scandinavia is not communist; and they are certainly not Stalinist. They don’t believe in total collectivization of industry, or complete government control over the economy. They don’t believe in complete, total equality, or even a hard cap on wealth: Stefan Persson is an 11-figure billionaire. Does he pay high taxes, living in Sweden? Yes he does, considerably higher than he’d pay in the US. He seems to be okay with that. Why, it’s almost like his marginal utility of wealth is now negligible.

Scandinavian countries also don’t try to micromanage your life in the way often associated with “socialism”–in fact I’d say they do it less than we do in the US. Here we have Republicans who want to require drug tests for food stamps even though that literally wastes money and helps no one; there they just provide a long list of government benefits for everyone free of charge. They just held a conference in Copenhagen to discuss the possibility of transitioning many of these benefits into a basic income; and basic income is the least intrusive means of redistributing wealth.

In fact, because Scandinavian countries tax differently, it’s not necessarily the case that people always pay higher taxes there. But they pay more transparent taxes, and taxes with sharper incidence. Denmark’s corporate tax rate is only 22% compared to 35% in the US; but their top personal income tax bracket is 59% while ours is only 39.6% (though it can rise over 50% with some state taxes). Denmark also has a land value tax and a VAT, both of which most economists have clamored for for generations. (The land value tax I totally agree with; the VAT I’m a little more ambivalent about.) Moreover, filing your taxes in Denmark is not a month-long stress marathon of gathering paperwork, filling out forms, and fearing that you’ll get something wrong and be audited as it is in the US; they literally just send you a bill. You can contest it, but most people don’t. You just pay it and you’re done.

Now, that does mean the government is keeping track of your income; and I might think that Americans would never tolerate such extreme surveillance… and then I remember that PRISM is a thing. Apparently we’re totally fine with the NSA reading our emails, but God forbid the IRS just fill out our 1040s for us (that they are going to read anyway). And there’s no surveillance involved in requiring retail stores to incorporate sales tax into listed price like they do in Europe instead of making us do math at the cash register like they do here. It’s almost like Americans are trying to make taxes as painful as possible.

Indeed, I think Scandanavian socialism is a good example of how high taxes are a sign of a free society, not an authoritarian one. Taxes are a minimal incursion on liberty. High taxes are how you fund a strong government and maintain extensive infrastructure and public services while still being fair and following the rule of law. The lowest tax rates in the world are in North Korea, which has ostensibly no taxes at all; the government just confiscates whatever they decide they want. Taxes in Venezuela are quite low, because the government just owns all the oil refineries (and also uses multiple currency exchange rates to arbitrage seigniorage). US taxes are low by First World standards, but not by world standards, because we combine a free society with a staunch opposition to excessive taxation. Most of the rest of the free world is fine with paying a lot more taxes than we do. In fact, even using Heritage Foundation data, there is a clear positive correlation between higher tax rates and higher economic freedom:
Graph: Heritage Foundation Economic Freedom Index and tax burden

What’s really strange, though, is that most Americans actually support higher taxes on the rich. They often have strange or even incoherent ideas about what constitutes “rich”; I have extended family members who have said they think $100,000 is an unreasonable amount of money for someone to make, yet somehow are totally okay with Donald Trump making $300,000,000. The chant “we are the 99%” has always been off by a couple orders of magnitude; the plutocrat rentier class is the top 0.01%, not the top 1%. The top 1% consists mainly of doctors and lawyers and engineers; the top 0.01%, to a man—and they are nearly all men, in fact White men—either own corporations or work in finance. But even adjusting for all this, it seems like at least a bare majority of Americans are all right with “redistributive” “socialist” policies—as long as you don’t call them that.

So I suppose that’s sort of what I’m trying to do; don’t think of it as “socialism”. Think of it as #ScandinaviaIsBetter.

Toward an economics of social norms

Sep 17, JDN 2457649

It is typical in economics to assume that prices are set by perfect competition in markets with perfect information. This is obviously ridiculous, so many economists do go further and start looking into possible distortions of the market, such as externalities and monopolies. But almost always the assumption is still that human beings are neoclassical rational agents, what I call “infinite identical psychopaths”, selfish profit-maximizers with endless intelligence and zero empathy.

What happens when we recognize that human beings are not like this, but in fact are empathetic, social creatures, who care about one another and work toward the interests of (what they perceive to be) their tribe? How are prices really set? What actually decides what is made and sold? What does economics become once you understand sociology? (The good news is that experiments are now being done to find out.)

Presumably some degree of market competition is involved, and no small amount of externalities and monopolies. But one of the very strongest forces involved in setting prices in the real world is almost completely ignored, and that is social norms.

Social norms are tremendously powerful. They will drive us to bear torture, fight and die on battlefields, even detonate ourselves as suicide bombs. When we talk about “religion” or “ideology” motivating people to do things, really what we are talking about is social norms. While some weaker norms can be overridden, no amount of economic incentive can ever override a social norm at its full power. Moreover, most of our behavior in daily life is driven by social norms: How to dress, what to eat, where to live. Even the fundamental structure of our lives is written by social norms: Go to school, get a job, get married, raise a family.

Even academic economists, who imagine themselves one part purveyor of ultimate wisdom and one part perfectly rational agent, are clearly strongly driven by social norms—what problems are “interesting”, which researchers are “renowned”, what approaches are “sensible”, what statistical methods are “appropriate”. If economists were perfectly rational, dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models would be in the dustbin of history (because, like string theory, they have yet to lead to a single useful empirical prediction), research journals would not be filled with endless streams of irrelevant but impressive equations (I recently read one that basically spent half a page of calculus re-deriving the concept of GDP—and computer-generated gibberish has been published, because its math looked so impressive), and instead of frequentist p-values (and often misinterpreted at that), all the statistics would be written in the form of Bayesian logodds.

Indeed, in light of all this, I often like to say that to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

How does this affect buying and selling? Well, first of all, there are some things we refuse to buy and sell, or at least that most of us refuse to buy and sell, and who use social pressure, public humilitation, or even the force of law to prevent. You’re not supposed to sell children. You’re not supposed to sell your vote. You’re not even supposed to sell sexual favors (though every society has always had a large segment of people who do, and more recently people are becoming more open to the idea of at least decriminalizing it). If we were neoclassical rational agents, we would have no such qualms; if we want something and someone is willing to sell it to us, we’ll buy it. But as actual human beings with emotions and social norms, we recognize that there is something fundamentally different about selling your vote as opposed to selling a shirt or a television. It’s not always immediately obvious where to draw the line, which is why sex work can be such a complicated issue (You can’t get paid to have sex… unless someone is filming it?). Different societies may do it differently: Part of the challenge of fighting corruption in Third World countries is that much of what we call corruption—and which actually is harmful to long-run economic development—isn’t perceived as “corruption” by the people involved in it, just as social custom (“Of course I’d hire my cousin! What kind of cousin would I be if I didn’t?”). Yet despite all that, almost everyone agrees that there is a line to be drawn. So there are whole markets that theoretically could exist, but don’t, or only exist as tiny black markets most people never participate in, because we consider selling those things morally wrong. Recently a whole subfield of cognitive economics has emerged studying these repugnant markets.

Even if a transaction is not considered so repugnant as to be unacceptable, there are also other classes of goods that are in some sense unsavory; something you really shouldn’t buy, but you’re not a monster for doing so. These are often called sin goods, and they have always included drugs, alcohol, and gambling—and I do mean always, as every human civilization has had these things—they include prostitution where it is legal, and as social norms change they are now beginning to include oil and coal as well (which can only be good for the future of Earth’s climate). Sin goods are systematically more expensive than they should be for their marginal cost, because most people are unwilling to participate in selling them. As a result, the financial returns for producing sin goods are systematically higher. Actually, this could partially explain why Wall Street banks are so profitable; when the banking system is corrupt as it is—and you’re not imagining that; laundering money for terroriststhen banking becomes a sin good, and good people don’t want to participate in it. Or perhaps the effect runs the other way around: Banking has been viewed as sinful for centuries (in Medieval times, usury was punished much the same way as witchcraft), and as a result only the sort of person who doesn’t care about social and moral norms becomes a banker—and so the banking system becomes horrifically corrupt. Is this a reason for good people to force ourselves to become bankers? Or is there another way—perhaps credit unions?

There are other ways that social norms drive prices as well. We have a concept ofa “fair wage”, which is quite distinct from the economic concept of a “market-clearing wage”. When people ask whether someone’s wage is fair, they don’t look at supply and demand and try to determine whether there are too many or too few people offering that service. They ask themselves what the labor is worth—what value has it added—and how hard that person has worked to do it—what cost it bore. Now, these aren’t totally unrelated to supply and demand (people are less likely to supply harder work, people are more likely to demand higher value), so it’s conceivable that these heuristics could lead us to more or less achieve the market-clearing wage most of the time. But there are also some systematic distortions to consider.

Perhaps the most important way fairness matters in economics is necessities: Basic requirements for human life such as food, housing, and medicine. The structure of our society also makes transportation, education, and Internet access increasingly necessary for basic functioning. From the perspective of an economist, it is a bit paradoxical how angry people get when the price of something important (such as healthcare) is increased: If it’s extremely valuable, shouldn’t you be willing to pay more? Why does it bother you less when something like a Lamborghini or a Rolex rises in price, something that almost certainly wasn’t even worth its previous price? You’re going to buy the necessities anyway, right? Well, as far as most economists are concerned, that’s all that matters—what gets bought and sold. But of course as a human being I do understand why people get angry about these things, and it is because they have to buy them anyway. When someone like Martin Shkreli raises the prices on basic goods, we feel exploited. There’s even a way to make this economically formal: When demand is highly inelastic, we are rightly very sensitive to the possibility of a monopoly, because monopolies under inelastic demand can extract huge profits and cause similarly huge amounts of damage to the welfare of their customers. That isn’t quite how most people would put it, but I think that has something to do with the ultimate reason we evolved that heuristic: It’s dangerous to let someone else control your basic necessities, because that gives them enormous power to exploit you. If they control things that aren’t as important to you, that doesn’t matter so much, because you can always do without if you must. So a norm that keeps businesses from overcharging on necessities is very important—and probably not as strong anymore as it should be.

Another very important way that fairness and markets can be misaligned is talent: What if something is just easier for one person than another? If you achieve the same goal with half the work, should you be rewarded more for being more efficient, or less because you bore less cost? Neoclassical economics doesn’t concern itself with such questions, asking only if supply and demand reached equilibrium. But we as human beings do care about such things; we want to know what wage a person deserves, not just what wage they would receive in a competitive market.

Could we be wrong to do that? Might it be better if we just let the market do its work? In some cases I think that may actually be true. Part of why CEO pay is rising so fast despite being uncorrelated with corporate profitability or even negatively correlated is that CEOs have convinced us (or convinced their boards of directors) that this is fair, that they deserve more stock options. They even convince them that their pay is based on performance, by using highly distorted measures of performance. If boards thought more like economic rational agents, when a CEO asked for more pay they’d ask: “What other company gave you a higher offer?” and if the CEO didn’t have an answer, they’d laugh and refuse the raise. Because in purely economic terms, that is all a salary does: it keeps you from quitting to work somewhere else. The competitive mechanism of the market is supposed to then ensure that your wage aligns with your marginal cost and marginal productivity purely due to that.

On the other hand, there are many groups of people who simply aren’t doing very well in the market: Women, racial minorities, people with disabilities. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which might go away if markets were made more competitive—the classic argument that competitive markets reward companies that don’t discriminate—but many clearly wouldn’t. Indeed, that argument was never as strong as it at first appears; in a society where social norms are strongly in favor of bigotry, it can be completely economically rational to participate in bigotry to avoid being penalized. When Chick-Fil-A was revealed to have donated to anti-LGBT political groups, many people tried to boycott—but their sales actually increased from the publicity. Honestly it’s a bit baffling that they promised not to donate to such causes anymore; it was apparently a profitable business decision to be revealed as supporters of bigotry. And even when discrimination does hurt economic performance, companies are run by human beings, and they are still quite capable of discriminating regardless. Indeed, the best evidence we have that discrimination is inefficient comes from… businesses that persist in discriminating despite the fact that it is inefficient.

But okay, suppose we actually did manage to make everyone compensated according to their marginal productivity. (Or rather, what Rawls derided: “From each according to his marginal productivity, to each according to his threat advantage.”) The market would then clear and be highly efficient. Would that actually be a good thing? I’m not so sure.

A lot of people are highly unproductive through no fault of their own—particularly children and people with disabilities. Much of this is not discrimination; it’s just that they aren’t as good at providing services. Should we simply leave them to fend for themselves? Then there’s the key point about what marginal means in this case—it means “given what everyone else is doing”. But that means that you can be made obsolete by someone else’s actions, and in this era of rapid technological advancement, jobs become obsolete faster than ever. Unlike a lot of people, I recognize that it makes no sense to keep people working at jobs that can be automated—the machines are better. But still, what do we do with the people whose jobs have been eliminated? Do we treat them as worthless? When automated buses become affordable—and they will; I give it 20 years—do we throw the human bus drivers under them?

One way out is of course a basic income: Let the market wage be what it will, and then use the basic income to provide for what human beings deserve irrespective of their market productivity. I definitely support a basic income, of course, and this does solve the most serious problems like children and quadriplegics starving in the streets.

But as I read more of the arguments by people who favor a job guarantee instead of a basic income, I begin to understand better why they are uncomfortable with the idea: It doesn’t seem fair. A basic income breaks once and for all the link between “a fair day’s work” and “a fair day’s wage”. It runs counter to this very deep-seated intuition most people have that money is what you earn—and thereby deserve—by working, and only by working. That is an extremely powerful social norm, and breaking it will be very difficult; so it’s worth asking: Should we even try to break it? Is there a way to achieve a system where markets are both efficient and fair?

I’m honestly not sure; but I do know that we could make substantial progress from where we currently stand. Most billionaire wealth is pure rent in the economic sense: It’s received by corruption and market distortion, not by efficient market competition. Most poverty is due to failures of institutions, not lack of productivity of workers. As George Monblot famously wrote, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Most of the income disparity between White men and others is due to discrimination, not actual skill—and what skill differences there are are largely the result of differences in education and upbringing anyway. So if we do in fact correct these huge inefficiencies, we will also be moving toward fairness at the same time. But still that nagging thought remains: When all that is done, will there come a day where we must decide whether we would rather have an efficient economy or a just society? And if it does, will we decide the right way?

Is Equal Unfair?

JDN 2457492

Much as you are officially a professional when people start paying you for what you do, I think you are officially a book reviewer when people start sending you books for free asking you to review them for publicity. This has now happened to me, with the book Equal Is Unfair by Don Watkins and Yaron Brook. This post is longer than usual, but in order to be fair to the book’s virtues as well as its flaws, I felt a need to explain quite thoroughly.

It’s a very frustrating book, because at times I find myself agreeing quite strongly with the first part of a paragraph, and then reaching the end of that same paragraph and wanting to press my forehead firmly into the desk in front of me. It makes some really good points, and for the most part uses economic statistics reasonably accurately—but then it rides gleefully down a slippery slope fallacy like a waterslide. But I guess that’s what I should have expected; it’s by leaders of the Ayn Rand Institute, and my experience with reading Ayn Rand is similar to that of Randall Monroe (I’m mainly referring to the alt-text, which uses slightly foul language).

As I kept being jostled between “That’s a very good point.”, “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.”, and “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” I realized that there are actually three books here, interleaved:

1. A decent economics text on the downsides of taxation and regulation and the great success of technology and capitalism at raising the standard of living in the United States, which could have been written by just about any mainstream centrist neoclassical economist—I’d say it reads most like John Taylor or Ken Galbraith. My reactions to this book were things like “That’s a very good point.”, and “Sure, but any economist would agree with that.”

2. An interesting philosophical treatise on the meanings of “equality” and “opportunity” and their application to normative economic policy, as well as about the limitations of statistical data in making political and ethical judgments. It could have been written by Robert Nozick (actually I think much of it was based on Robert Nozick). Some of the arguments are convincing, others are not, and many of the conclusions are taken too far; but it’s well within the space of reasonable philosophical arguments. My reactions to this book were things like “Hmm, that’s an interesting perspective.” and “Your argument is valid, but I think I reject the second premise.”

3. A delusional rant of the sort that could only be penned by a True Believer in the One True Gospel of Ayn Rand, about how poor people are lazy moochers, billionaires are world-changing geniuses whose superior talent and great generosity we should all bow down before, and anyone who would dare suggest that perhaps Steve Jobs got lucky or owes something to the rest of society is an authoritarian Communist who hates all achievement and wants to destroy the American Dream. It was this book that gave me reactions like “How can anyone as educated as you believe anything that stupid!?” and “You clearly have no idea what poverty is like, do you?” and “[expletive] you, you narcissistic ingrate!”

Given that the two co-authors are Executive Director and a fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, I suppose I should really be pleasantly surprised that books 1 and 2 exist, rather than disappointed by book 3.

As evidence of each of the three books interleaved, I offer the following quotations:

Book 1:

“All else being equal, taxes discourage production and prosperity.” (p. 30)

No reasonable economist would disagree. The key is all else being equal—it rarely is.

“For most of human history, our most pressing problem was getting enough food. Now food is abundant and affordable.” (p.84)

Correct! And worth pointing out, especially to anyone who thinks that economic progress is an illusion or we should go back to pre-industrial farming practices—and such people do exist.

“Wealth creation is first and foremost knowledge creation. And this is why you can add to the list of people who have created the modern world, great thinkers: people such as Euclid, Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and a relative handful of others.” (p.90, emph. in orig.)

Absolutely right, though as I’ll get to below there’s something rather notable about that list.

“To be sure, there is competition in an economy, but it’s not a zero-sum game in which some have to lose so that others can win—not in the big picture.” (p. 97)

Yes! Precisely! I wish I could explain to more people—on both the Left and the Right, by the way—that economics is nonzero-sum, and that in the long run competitive markets improve the standard of living of society as a whole, not just the people who win that competition.

Book 2:

“Even opportunities that may come to us without effort on our part—affluent parents, valuable personal connections, a good education—require enormous effort to capitalize on.” (p. 66)

This is sometimes true, but clearly doesn’t apply to things like the Waltons’ inherited billions, for which all they had to do was be born in the right family and not waste their money too extravagantly.

“But life is not a game, and achieving equality of initial chances means forcing people to play by different rules.” (p. 79)

This is an interesting point, and one that I think we should acknowledge; we must treat those born rich differently from those born poor, because their unequal starting positions mean that treating them equally from this point forward would lead to a wildly unfair outcome. If my grandfather stole your grandfather’s wealth and passed it on to me, the fair thing to do is not to treat you and I equally from this point forward—it’s to force me to return what was stolen, insofar as that is possible. And even if we suppose that my grandfather earned far vaster wealth than yours, I think a more limited redistribution remains justified simply to put you and I on a level playing field and ensure fair competition and economic efficiency.

“The key error in this argument is that it totally mischaracterizes what it means to earn something. For the egalitarians, the results of our actions don’t merely have to be under our control, but entirely of our own making. […] But there is nothing like that in reality, and so what the egalitarians are ultimately doing is wiping out the very possibility of earning something.” (p. 193)

The way they use “egalitarian” as an insult is a bit grating, but there clearly are some actual egalitarian philosophers whose views are this extreme, such as G.A. Cohen, James Kwak and Peter Singer. I strongly agree that we need to make a principled distinction between gains that are earned and gains that are unearned, such that both sets are nonempty. Yet while Cohen would seem to make “earned” an empty set, Watkins and Brook very nearly make “unearned” empty—you get what you get, and you deserve it. The only exceptions they seem willing to make are outright theft and, what they consider equivalent, taxation. They have no concept of exploitation, excessive market power, or arbitrage—and while they claim they oppose fraud, they seem to think that only government is capable of it.

Book 3:

“What about government handouts (usually referred to as ‘transfer payments’)?” (p. 23)

Because Social Security is totally just a handout—it’s not like you pay into it your whole life or anything.

“No one cares whether the person who fixes his car or performs his brain surgery or applies for a job at his company is male or female, Indian or Pakistani—he wants to know whether they are competent.” (p.61)

Yes they do. We have direct experimental evidence of this.

“The notion that ‘spending drives the economy’ and that rich people spend less than others isn’t a view seriously entertained by economists,[…]” (p. 110)

The New Synthesis is Keynesian! This is what Milton Friedman was talking about when he said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

“Because mobility statistics don’t distinguish between those who don’t rise and those who can’t, they are useless when it comes to assessing how healthy mobility is.” (p. 119)

So, if Black people have much lower odds of achieving high incomes even controlling for education, we can’t assume that they are disadvantaged or discriminated against; maybe Black people are just lazy or stupid? Is that what you’re saying here? (I think it might be.)

“Payroll taxes alone amount to 15.3 percent of your income; money that is taken from you and handed out to the elderly. This means that you have to spend more than a month and a half each year working without pay in order to fund other people’s retirement and medical care.” (p. 127)

That is not even close to how taxes work. Taxes are not “taken” from money you’d otherwise get—taxation changes prices and the monetary system depends upon taxation.

“People are poor, in the end, because they have not created enough wealth to make themselves prosperous.” (p. 144)

This sentence was so awful that when I showed it to my boyfriend, he assumed it must be out of context. When I showed him the context, he started swearing the most I’ve heard him swear in a long time, because the context was even worse than it sounds. Yes, this book is literally arguing that the reason people are poor is that they’re just too lazy and stupid to work their way out of poverty.

“No society has fully implemented the egalitarian doctrine, but one came as close as any society can come: Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.” (p. 207)

Because obviously the problem with the Khmer Rouge was their capital gains taxes. They were just too darn fair, and if they’d been more selfish they would never have committed genocide. (The authors literally appear to believe this.)

 

So there are my extensive quotations, to show that this really is what the book is saying. Now, a little more summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

One good thing is that the authors really do seem to understand fairly well the arguments of their opponents. They quote their opponents extensively, and only a few times did it feel meaningfully out of context. Their use of economic statistics is also fairly good, though occasionally they present misleading numbers or compare two obviously incomparable measures.

One of the core points in Equal is Unfair is quite weak: They argue against the “shared-pie assumption”, which is that we create wealth as a society, and thus the rest of society is owed some portion of the fruits of our efforts. They maintain that this is fundamentally authoritarian and immoral; essentially they believe a totalizing false dichotomy between either absolute laissez-faire or Stalinist Communism.

But the “shared-pie assumption” is not false; we do create wealth as a society. Human cognition is fundamentally social cognition; they said themselves that we depend upon the discoveries of people like Newton and Einstein for our way of life. But it should be obvious we can never pay Einstein back; so instead we must pay forward, to help some child born in the ghetto to rise to become the next Einstein. I agree that we must build a society where opportunity is maximized—and that means, necessarily, redistributing wealth from its current state of absurd and immoral inequality.

I do however agree with another core point, which is that most discussions of inequality rely upon a tacit assumption which is false: They call it the “fixed-pie assumption”.

When you talk about the share of income going to different groups in a population, you have to be careful about the fact that there is not a fixed amount of wealth in a society to be distributed—not a “fixed pie” that we are cutting up and giving around. If it were really true that the rising income share of the top 1% were necessary to maximize the absolute benefits of the bottom 99%, we probably should tolerate that, because the alternative means harming everyone. (In arguing this they quote John Rawls several times with disapprobation, which is baffling because that is exactly what Rawls says.)

Even if that’s true, there is still a case to be made against inequality, because too much wealth in the hands of a few people will give them more power—and unequal power can be dangerous even if wealth is earned, exchanges are uncoerced, and the distribution is optimally efficient. (Watkins and Brook dismiss this contention out of hand, essentially defining beneficent exploitation out of existence.)

Of course, in the real world, there’s no reason to think that the ballooning income share of the top 0.01% in the US is actually associated with improved standard of living for everyone else.

I’ve shown these graphs before, but they bear repeating:

Income shares for the top 1% and especially the top 0.1% and 0.01% have risen dramatically in the last 30 years.

top_income_shares_adjusted

But real median income has only slightly increased during the same period.

US_median_household_income

Thus, mean income has risen much faster than median income.

median_mean

While theoretically it could be that the nature of our productivity technology has shifted in such a way that it suddenly became necessary to heap more and more wealth on the top 1% in order to continue increasing national output, there is actually very little evidence of this. On the contrary, as Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Laureate, you may recall) has documented, the leading cause of our rising inequality appears to be a dramatic increase in rent-seeking, which is to say corruption, exploitation, and monopoly power. (This probably has something to do with why I found in my master’s thesis that rising top income shares correlate quite strongly with rising levels of corruption.)

Now to be fair, the authors of Equal is Unfair do say that they are opposed to rent-seeking, and would like to see it removed. But they have a very odd concept of what rent-seeking entails, and it basically seems to amount to saying that whatever the government does is rent-seeking, whatever corporations do is fair free-market competition. On page 38 they warn us not to assume that government is good and corporations are bad—but actually it’s much more that they assume that government is bad and corporations are good. (The mainstream opinion appears to be actually that both are bad, and we should replace them both with… er… something.)

They do make some other good points I wish more leftists would appreciate, such as the point that while colonialism and imperialism can damage countries that suffer them and make them poorer, they generally do not benefit the countries that commit them and make them richer. The notion that Europe is rich because of imperialism is simply wrong; Europe is rich because of education, technology, and good governance. Indeed, the greatest surge in Europe’s economic growth occurred as the period of imperialism was winding down—when Europeans realized that they would be better off trying to actually invent and produce things rather than stealing them from others.

Likewise, they rightfully demolish notions of primitivism and anti-globalization that I often see bouncing around from folks like Naomi Klein. But these are book 1 messages; any economist would agree that primitivism is a terrible idea, and very few are opposed to globalization per se.

The end of Equal is Unfair gives a five-part plan for unleashing opportunity in America:

1. Abolish all forms of corporate welfare so that no business can gain unfair advantage.

2. Abolish government barriers to work so that every individual can enjoy the dignity of earned success.

3. Phase out the welfare state so that America can once again become the land of self-reliance.

4. Unleash the power of innovation in education by ending the government monopoly on schooling.

5. Liberate innovators from the regulatory shackles that are strangling them.

Number 1 is hard to disagree with, except that they include literally everything the government does that benefits a corporation as corporate welfare, including things like subsidies for solar power that the world desperately needs (or millions of people will die).

Number 2 sounds really great until you realize that they are including all labor standards, environmental standards and safety regulations as “barriers to work”; because it’s such a barrier for children to not be able to work in a factory where your arm can get cut off, and such a barrier that we’ve eliminated lead from gasoline emissions and thereby cut crime in half.

Number 3 could mean a lot of things; if it means replacing the existing system with a basic income I’m all for it. But in fact it seems to mean removing all social insurance whatsoever. Indeed, Watkins and Brook do not appear to believe in social insurance at all. The whole concept of “less fortunate”, “there but for the grace of God go I” seems to elude them. They have no sense that being fortunate in their own lives gives them some duty to help others who were not; they feel no pang of moral obligation whatsoever to help anyone else who needs help. Indeed, they literally mock the idea that human beings are “all in this together”.

They also don’t even seem to believe in public goods, or somehow imagine that rational self-interest could lead people to pay for public goods without any enforcement whatsoever despite the overwhelming incentives to free-ride. (What if you allow people to freely enter a contract that provides such enforcement mechanisms? Oh, you mean like social democracy?)

Regarding number 4, I’d first like to point out that private schools exist. Moreover, so do charter schools in most states, and in states without charter schools there are usually vouchers parents can use to offset the cost of private schools. So while the government has a monopoly in the market share sense—the vast majority of education in the US is public—it does not actually appear to be enforcing a monopoly in the anti-competitive sense—you can go to private school, it’s just too expensive or not as good. Why, it’s almost as if education is a public good or a natural monopoly.

Number 5 also sounds all right, until you see that they actually seem most opposed to antitrust laws of all things. Why would antitrust laws be the ones that bother you? They are designed to increase competition and lower barriers, and largely succeed in doing so (when they are actually enforced, which is rare of late). If you really want to end barriers to innovation and government-granted monopolies, why is it not patents that draw your ire?

They also seem to have trouble with the difference between handicapping and redistribution—they seem to think that the only way to make outcomes more equal is to bring the top down and leave the bottom where it is, and they often use ridiculous examples like “Should we ban reading to your children, because some people don’t?” But of course no serious egalitarian would suggest such a thing. Education isn’t fungible, so it can’t be redistributed. You can take it away (and sometimes you can add it, e.g. public education, which Watkins and Brooks adamantly oppose); but you can’t simply transfer it from one person to another. Money on the other hand, is by definition fungible—that’s kind of what makes it money, really. So when we take a dollar from a rich person and give it to a poor person, the poor person now has an extra dollar. We’ve not simply lowered; we’ve also raised. (In practice it’s a bit more complicated than that, as redistribution can introduce inefficiencies. So realistically maybe we take $1.00 and give $0.90; that’s still worth doing in a lot of cases.)

If attributes like intelligence were fungible, I think we’d have a very serious moral question on our hands! It is not obvious to me that the world is better off with its current range of intelligence, compared to a world where geniuses had their excess IQ somehow sucked out and transferred to mentally disabled people. Or if you think that the marginal utility of intelligence is increasing, then maybe we should redistribute IQ upward—take it from some mentally disabled children who aren’t really using it for much and add it onto some geniuses to make them super-geniuses. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; you can’t do that. But whereas Watkins and Brook seem to think it’s obvious that we shouldn’t even if we could, I don’t find that obvious at all. You didn’t earn your IQ (for the most part); you don’t seem to deserve it in any deep sense; so why should you get to keep it, if the world would be much better off if you didn’t? Why should other people barely be able to feed themselves so I can be good at calculus? At best, maybe I’m free to keep it—but given the stakes, I’m not even sure that would be justifiable. Peter Singer is right about one thing: You’re not free to let a child drown in a lake just to keep your suit from getting wet.

Ultimately, if you really want to understand what’s going on with Equal is Unfair, consider the following sentence, which I find deeply revealing as to the true objectives of these Objectivists:

“Today, meanwhile, although we have far more liberty than our feudal ancestors, there are countless ways in which the government restricts our freedom to produce and trade including minimum wage laws, rent control, occupational licensing laws, tariffs, union shop laws, antitrust laws, government monopolies such as those granted to the post office and education system, subsidies for industries such as agriculture or wind and solar power, eminent domain laws, wealth redistribution via the welfare state, and the progressive income tax.” (p. 114)

Some of these are things no serious economist would disagree with: We should stop subsidizing agriculture and tariffs should be reduced or removed. Many occupational licenses are clearly unnecessary (though this has a very small impact on inequality in real terms—licensing may stop you from becoming a barber, but it’s not what stops you from becoming a CEO). Others are legitimately controversial: Economists are currently quite divided over whether minimum wage is beneficial or harmful (I lean toward beneficial, but I’d prefer a better solution), as well as how to properly regulate unions so that they give workers much-needed bargaining power without giving unions too much power. But a couple of these are totally backward, exactly contrary to what any mainstream economist would say: Antitrust laws need to be enforced more, not eliminated (don’t take it from me; take it from that well-known Marxist rag The Economist). Subsidies for wind and solar power make the economy more efficient, not less—and suspiciously Watkins and Brook omitted the competing subsidies that actually are harmful, namely those to coal and oil.

Moreover, I think it’s very revealing that they included the word progressive when talking about taxation. In what sense does making a tax progressive undermine our freedom? None, so far as I can tell. The presence of a tax undermines freedom—your freedom to spend that money some other way. Making the tax higher undermines freedom—it’s more money you lose control over. But making the tax progressive increases freedom for some and decreases it for others—and since rich people have lower marginal utility of wealth and are generally more free in substantive terms in general, it really makes the most sense that, holding revenue constant, making a tax progressive generally makes your people more free.

But there’s one thing that making taxes progressive does do: It benefits poor people and hurts rich people. And thus the true agenda of Equal is Unfair becomes clear: They aren’t actually interested in maximizing freedom—if they were, they wouldn’t be complaining about occupational licensing and progressive taxation, they’d be outraged by forced labor, mass incarceration, indefinite detention, and the very real loss of substantive freedom that comes from being born into poverty. They wouldn’t want less redistribution, they’d want more efficient and transparent redistribution—a shift from the current hodgepodge welfare state to a basic income system. They would be less concerned about the “freedom” to pollute the air and water with impunity, and more concerned about the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.

No, what they really believe is rich people are better. They believe that billionaires attained their status not by luck or circumstance, not by corruption or ruthlessness, but by the sheer force of their genius. (This is essentially the entire subject of chapter 6, “The Money-Makers and the Money-Appropriators”, and it’s nauseating.) They describe our financial industry as “fundamentally moral and productive” (p.156)—the industry that you may recall stole millions of homes and laundered money for terrorists. They assert that no sane person could believe that Steve Wozniack got lucky—I maintain no sane person could think otherwise. Yes, he was brilliant; yes, he invented good things. But he had to be at the right place at the right time, in a society that supported and educated him and provided him with customers and employees. You didn’t build that.

Indeed, perhaps most baffling is that they themselves seem to admit that the really great innovators, such as Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, were scientists—but scientists are almost never billionaires. Even the common counterexample, Thomas Edison, is largely false; he mainly plagiarized from Nikola Tesla and appropriated the ideas of his employees. Newton, Einstein and Darwin were all at least upper-middle class (as was Tesla, by the way—he did not die poor as is sometimes portrayed), but they weren’t spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich the way that Steve Jobs and Andrew Carnegie were and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are.

Some people clearly have more talent than others, and some people clearly work harder than others, and some people clearly produce more than others. But I just can’t wrap my head around the idea that a single man can work so hard, be so talented, produce so much that he can deserve to have as much wealth as a nation of millions of people produces in a year. Yet, Mark Zuckerberg has that much wealth. Remind me again what he did? Did he cure a disease that was killing millions? Did he colonize another planet? Did he discover a fundamental law of nature? Oh yes, he made a piece of software that’s particularly convenient for talking to your friends. Clearly that is worth the GDP of Latvia. Not that silly Darwin fellow, who only uncovered the fundamental laws of life itself.

In the grand tradition of reducing complex systems to simple numerical values, I give book 1 a 7/10, book 2 a 5/10, and book 3 a 2/10. Equal is Unfair is about 25% book 1, 25% book 2, and 50% book 3, so altogether their final score is, drumroll please: 4/10. Maybe read the first half, I guess? That’s where most of the good stuff is.

The Tragedy of the Commons

JDN 2457387

In a previous post I talked about one of the most fundamental—perhaps the most fundamental—problem in game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and how neoclassical economic theory totally fails to explain actual human behavior when faced with this problem in both experiments and the real world.

As a brief review, the essence of the game is that both players can either cooperate or defect; if they both cooperate, the outcome is best overall; but it is always in each player’s interest to defect. So a neoclassically “rational” player would always defect—resulting in a bad outcome for everyone. But real human beings typically cooperate, and thus do better. The “paradox” of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that being “rational” results in making less money at the end.

Obviously, this is not actually a good definition of rational behavior. Being short-sighted and ignoring the impact of your behavior on others doesn’t actually produce good outcomes for anybody, including yourself.

But the Prisoner’s Dilemma only has two players. If we expand to a larger number of players, the expanded game is called a Tragedy of the Commons.

When we do this, something quite surprising happens: As you add more people, their behavior starts converging toward the neoclassical solution, in which everyone defects and we get a bad outcome for everyone.

Indeed, people in general become less cooperative, less courageous, and more apathetic the more of them you put together. K was quite apt when he said, “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” There are ways to counteract this effect, as I’ll get to in a moment—but there is a strong effect that needs to be counteracted.

We see this most vividly in the bystander effect. If someone is walking down the street and sees someone fall and injure themselves, there is about a 70% chance that they will go try to help the person who fell—humans are altruistic. But if there are a dozen people walking down the street who all witness the same event, there is only a 40% chance that any of them will help—humans are irrational.

The primary reason appears to be diffusion of responsibility. When we are alone, we are the only one could help, so we feel responsible for helping. But when there are others around, we assume that someone else could take care of it for us, so if it isn’t done that’s not our fault.

There also appears to be a conformity effect: We want to conform our behavior to social norms (as I said, to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms). The mere fact that there are other people who could have helped but didn’t suggests the presence of an implicit social norm that we aren’t supposed to help this person for some reason. It never occurs to most people to ask why such a norm would exist or whether it’s a good one—it simply never occurs to most people to ask those questions about any social norms. In this case, by hesitating to act, people actually end up creating the very norm they think they are obeying.

This can lead to what’s called an Abilene Paradox, in which people simultaneously try to follow what they think everyone else wants and also try to second-guess what everyone else wants based on what they do, and therefore end up doing something that none of them actually wanted. I think a lot of the weird things humans do can actually be attributed to some form of the Abilene Paradox. (“Why are we sacrificing this goat?” “I don’t know, I thought you wanted to!”)

Autistic people are not as good at following social norms (though some psychologists believe this is simply because our social norms are optimized for the neurotypical population). My suspicion is that autistic people are therefore less likely to suffer from the bystander effect, and more likely to intervene to help someone even if they are surrounded by passive onlookers. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any good empirical data on that—it appears no one has ever thought to check before.) I’m quite certain that autistic people are less likely to suffer from the Abilene Paradox—if they don’t want to do something, they’ll tell you so (which sometimes gets them in trouble).

Because of these psychological effects that blunt our rationality, in large groups human beings often do end up behaving in a way that appears selfish and short-sighted.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in ecology. Recycling, becoming vegetarian, driving less, buying more energy-efficient appliances, insulating buildings better, installing solar panels—none of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to do, especially when weighed against the tens of millions of people who will die if climate change continues unabated. Every recyclable can we throw in the trash is a silent vote for a global holocaust.

But as it no doubt immediately occurred to you to respond: No single one of us is responsible for all that. There’s no way I myself could possibly save enough carbon emissions to significantly reduce climate change—indeed, probably not even enough to save a single human life (though maybe). This is certainly true; the error lies in thinking that this somehow absolves us of the responsibility to do our share.

I think part of what makes the Tragedy of the Commons so different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, at least psychologically, is that the latter has an identifiable victimwe know we are specifically hurting that person more than we are helping ourselves. We may even know their name (and if we don’t, we’re more likely to defect—simply being on the Internet makes people more aggressive because they don’t interact face-to-face). In the Tragedy of the Commons, it is often the case that we don’t know who any of our victims are; moreover, it’s quite likely that we harm each one less than we benefit ourselves—even though we harm everyone overall more.

Suppose that driving a gas-guzzling car gives me 1 milliQALY of happiness, but takes away an average of 1 nanoQALY from everyone else in the world. A nanoQALY is tiny! Negligible, even, right? One billionth of a year, a mere 30 milliseconds! Literally less than the blink of an eye. But take away 30 milliseconds from everyone on Earth and you have taken away 7 years of human life overall. Do that 10 times, and statistically one more person is dead because of you. And you have gained only 10 milliQALY, roughly the value of $300 to a typical American. Would you kill someone for $300?

Peter Singer has argued that we should in fact think of it this way—when we cause a statistical death by our inaction, we should call it murder, just as if we had left a child to drown to keep our clothes from getting wet. I can’t agree with that. When you think seriously about the scale and uncertainty involved, it would be impossible to live at all if we were constantly trying to assess whether every action would lead to statistically more or less happiness to the aggregate of all human beings through all time. We would agonize over every cup of coffee, every new video game. In fact, the global economy would probably collapse because none of us would be able to work or willing to buy anything for fear of the consequences—and then whom would we be helping?

That uncertainty matters. Even the fact that there are other people who could do the job matters. If a child is drowning and there is a trained lifeguard right next to you, the lifeguard should go save the child, and if they don’t it’s their responsibility, not yours. Maybe if they don’t you should try; but really they should have been the one to do it.
But we must also not allow ourselves to simply fall into apathy, to do nothing simply because we cannot do everything. We cannot assess the consequences of every specific action into the indefinite future, but we can find general rules and patterns that govern the consequences of actions we might take. (This is the difference between act utilitarianism, which is unrealistic, and rule utilitarianism, which I believe is the proper foundation for moral understanding.)

Thus, I believe the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons is policy. It is to coordinate our actions together, and create enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance with that coordinated effort. We don’t look at acts in isolation, but at policy systems holistically. The proper question is not “What should I do?” but “How should we live?”

In the short run, this can lead to results that seem deeply suboptimal—but in the long run, policy answers lead to sustainable solutions rather than quick-fixes.

People are starving! Why don’t we just steal money from the rich and use it to feed people? Well, think about what would happen if we said that the property system can simply be unilaterally undermined if someone believes they are achieving good by doing so. The property system would essentially collapse, along with the economy as we know it. A policy answer to that same question might involve progressive taxation enacted by a democratic legislature—we agree, as a society, that it is justified to redistribute wealth from those who have much more than they need to those who have much less.

Our government is corrupt! We should launch a revolution! Think about how many people die when you launch a revolution. Think about past revolutions. While some did succeed in bringing about more just governments (e.g. the French Revolution, the American Revolution), they did so only after a long period of strife; and other revolutions (e.g. the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution) have made things even worse. Revolution is extremely costly and highly unpredictable; we must use it only as a last resort against truly intractable tyranny. The policy answer is of course democracy; we establish a system of government that elects leaders based on votes, and then if they become corrupt we vote to remove them. (Sadly, we don’t seem so good about that second part—the US Congress has a 14% approval rating but a 95% re-election rate.)

And in terms of ecology, this means that berating ourselves for our sinfulness in forgetting to recycle or not buying a hybrid car does not solve the problem. (Not that it’s bad to recycle, drive a hybrid car, and eat vegetarian—by all means, do these things. But it’s not enough.) We need a policy solution, something like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade that will enforce incentives against excessive carbon emissions.

In case you don’t think politics makes a difference, all of the Democrat candidates for President have proposed such plans—Bernie Sanders favors a carbon tax, Martin O’Malley supports an aggressive cap-and-trade plan, and Hillary Clinton favors heavily subsidizing wind and solar power. The Republican candidates on the other hand? Most of them don’t even believe in climate change. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina at least accept the basic scientific facts, but (1) they are very unlikely to win at this point and (2) even they haven’t announced any specific policy proposals for dealing with it.

This is why voting is so important. We can’t do enough on our own; the coordination problem is too large. We need to elect politicians who will make policy. We need to use the systems of coordination enforcement that we have built over generations—and that is fundamentally what a government is, a system of coordination enforcement. Only then can we overcome the tendency among human beings to become apathetic and short-sighted when faced with a Tragedy of the Commons.

Just give people money!

JDN 2457332 EDT 17:02.

Today is the Fifth of November, on which a bunch of people who liked a Hollywood movie start posting images in support of a fanatical religious terrorist in his plot to destroy democracy in the United Kingdom a few centuries ago. It’s really weird, but I’m not particularly interested in that.

Instead I’d like to talk about the solution to poverty, which we’ve known for a long time—in fact, it’s completely obvious—and yet have somehow failed to carry out. Many people doubt that it even works, not based on the empirical evidence, but because it just feels like it can’t be right, like it’s so obvious that surely it was tried and didn’t work and that’s why we moved on to other things. When you first tell a kindergartner that there are poor people in the world, that child will very likely ask: “Why don’t we just give them some money?”

Why not indeed?

Formally this is called a “direct cash transfer”, and it comes in many different variants, but basically they run along a continuum from unconditional—we just give it to everybody, no questions asked—to more and more conditional—you have to be below a certain income, or above a certain age, or have kids, or show up at our work program, or take a drug test, etc. The EU has a nice little fact sheet about the different types of cash transfer programs in use.

Actually, I’d argue that at the very far extreme is government salaries—the government will pay you $40,000 per year, provided that you teach high school every weekday. We don’t really think of that as a “conditional cash transfer” because it involves you providing a useful service (and is therefore more like an ordinary, private-sector salary), but many of the conditions imposed on cash transfers actually have this sort of character—we want people to do things that we think are useful to society, in order to justify us giving them the money. It really seems to be a continuum, from just giving money to everyone, to giving money to some people based on them doing certain things, to specifically hiring people to do something.

Social programs in different countries can be found at different places on this continuum. In the United States, our programs are extremely conditional, and also the total amount we give out is relatively small. In Europe, programs are not as conditional—though still conditional—and they give out more. And sure enough, after-tax poverty in Europe is considerably lower, even though before-tax poverty is about the same.

In fact, the most common way to make transfers conditional is to make them “in-kind”; instead of giving you money, we give you something—healthcare, housing, food. Sometimes this makes sense; actually I think for healthcare it makes the most sense, because price signals don’t work in a market as urgent and inelastic as healthcare (that is, you don’t shop around for an emergency room—in fact, people don’t even really shop around for a family doctor). But often it’s simply a condition we impose for political reasons; we don’t want those “lazy freeloaders” to do anything else with the money that we wouldn’t like, such as buying alcohol or gambling. Even poor people in India buy into this sort of reasoning. Nevermind that they generally don’t do that, or that they could just shift away spending they would otherwise be making (warning: technical economics paper within) to do those things anyway—it’s the principle of the thing.

Direct cash transfers not only work—they work about as well as the best things we’ve tried. Spending on cash transfers is about as cost-effective as spending on medical aid and malaria nets.

Other than in experiments (the largest of which I’m aware of was a town in Canada, unless you count Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, which is unconditional but quite small), we have never really tried implementing a fully unconditional cash transfer system. “Too expensive” is usually the complaint, and it would indeed be relatively expensive (probably greater than all of what we currently spend on Social Security and Medicare, which are two of our biggest government budget items). Implementing a program with a cost on the order of $2 trillion per year is surely not something to be done lightly. But it would have one quite substantial benefit: It would eliminate poverty in the United States immediately and forever.

This is why I really like the “abolish poverty” movement; we must recognize that at our current level of economic development, poverty is no longer a natural state, a complex problem to solve. It is a policy decision that we are making. We are saying, as a society, that we would rather continue to have poverty than spend that $2 trillion per year, about 12% of our $17.4 trillion GDP. We are saying that we’d rather have people who are homeless and starving than lose 12 cents of every dollar we make. (To be fair, if we include the dynamic economic impact of this tax-and-transfer system it might actually turn out to be more than that; but it could in fact be less—the increased spending would boost the economy, just as the increased taxes would restrain it—and seems very unlikely to be more than 20% of GDP.)

For most of human history—and in most countries today—that is not the case. India could not abolish poverty immediately by a single tax policy; nor could China. Probably not Brazil either. Maybe Greece could do it, but then again maybe not. But Germany could; the United Kingdom could; France could; and we could in the United States. We have enough wealth now that with a moderate increase in government spending we could create an economic floor below which no person could fall. It is incumbent upon us at the very least to justify why we don’t.

I have heard it said that poverty is not a natural condition, but the result of human action. Even Nelson Mandela endorsed this view. This is false, actually. In general, poverty is the natural condition of all life forms on Earth (and probably all life forms in the universe). Natural selection evolves us toward fitting as many gene-packages into the environment as possible, not toward maximizing the happiness of the sentient beings those gene-packages may happen to be. To a first approximation, all life forms suffer in poverty.

We live at a unique time in human history; for no more than the last century—and perhaps not even that—we have actually had so much wealth that we could eliminate poverty by choice. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings toiled in poverty because there was no such choice. Perhaps good policy in Greece could end poverty today, but it couldn’t have during the reign of Pericles. Good policy in Italy could end poverty now, but not when Caesar was emperor. Good policy in the United Kingdom could easily end poverty immediately, but even under Queen Victoria that wasn’t feasible.

Maybe that’s why we aren’t doing it? Our cultural memory was forged in a time decades or centuries ago, before we had this much wealth to work with. We speak of “end world hunger” in the same breath as “cure cancer” or “conquer death”, a great dream that has always been impossible and perhaps still is—but in fact we should speak of it in the same breath as “split the atom” and “land on the Moon”, seminal achievements that our civilization is now capable of thanks to economic and technological revolution.

Capitalism also seems to have a certain momentum to it; once you implement a market economy that maximizes wealth by harnessing self-interest, people seem to forget that we are fundamentally altruistic beings. I may never forget that economist who sent me an email with “altruism” in scare quotes, as though it was foolish (or at best imprecise) to say that human beings care about one another. But in fact we are the most altruistic species on Earth, without question, in a sense so formal and scientific it can literally be measured quantitatively.

There are real advantages to harnessing self-interest—not least, I know my own interests considerably better than I know yours, no matter who you are—and that is part of how we have achieved this great level of wealth (though personally I think science, democracy, and the empowerment of women are the far greater causes of our prosperity). But we must not let it forget us why we wanted to have wealth in the first place: Not to concentrate power in a handful of individuals who will pass it on to their heirs; not to “maximize work incentives”; not to give us the fanciest technological gadgets. The reason we wanted to have wealth was so that we could finally free ourselves from the endless toil that was our lot by birth and that of all other beings—to let us finally live, instead of merely survive. There is a peak to Maslow’s pyramid, and we could stand there now, together; but we must find the will to give up that 12 cents of every dollar.