The Asymmetry that Rules the World

JDN 2456921 PDT 13:30.

One single asymmetry underlies millions of problems and challenges the world has always faced. No, it’s not Christianity versus Islam (or atheism). No, it’s not the enormous disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor, though you’re getting warmer.

It is the asymmetry of information—the fundamental fact that what you know and what I know are not the same. If this seems so obvious as to be unworthy of comment, maybe you should tell that to the generations of economists who have assumed perfect information in all of their models.

It’s not clear that information asymmetry could ever go away—even in the utopian post-scarcity economy of the Culture, one of the few sacred rules is the sanctity of individual thought. The closest to an information-symmetric world I can think of is the Borg, and with that in mind we may ask whether we want such a thing after all. It could even be argued that total information symmetry is logically impossible, because once you make two individuals know and believe exactly the same things, you don’t have two individuals anymore, you just have one. (And then where do we draw the line? It’s that damn Ship of Theseus again—except of course the problem was never the ship, but defining the boundaries of Theseus himself.)

Right now you may be thinking: So what? Why is asymmetric information so important? Well, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Myerson-Satterthwaithe Theorem proves—mathematically proves, as certain as 2+2=4—that in the presence of asymmetric information, there is no market mechanism that guarantees Pareto-efficiency.

You can’t square that circle; because information is asymmetric, there’s just no way to make a free market that insures Pareto efficiency. This result is so strong that it actually makes you begin to wonder if we should just give up on economics entirely! If there’s no way we can possibly make a market that works, why bother at all?

But this is not the appropriate response. First of all, Pareto-efficiency is overrated; there are plenty of bad systems that are Pareto-efficient, and even some good systems that aren’t quite Pareto-efficient.

More importantly, even if there is no perfect market system, there clearly are better and worse market systems. Life is better here in the US than it is in Venezuela. Life in Sweden is arguably a bit better still (though not in every dimension). Life in Zambia and North Korea is absolutely horrific. Clearly there are better and worse ways to run a society, and the market system is a big part of that. The quality—and sometimes quantity—of life of billions of people can be made better or worse by the decisions we make in managing our economic system. Asymmetric information cannot be conquered, but it can be tamed.

This is actually a major subject for cognitive economics: How can we devise systems of regulation that minimize the damage done by asymmetric information? Akerlof’s Nobel was for his work on this subject, especially his famous paper “The Market for Lemons” in which he showed how product quality regulations could increase efficiency using the example of lemon cars. What he showed was, in short, that libertarian deregulation is stupid; removing regulations on product safety and quality doesn’t increase efficiency, it reduces it. (This is of course only true if the regulations are good ones; but despite protests from the supplement industry I really don’t see how “this bottle of pills must contain what it claims to contain” is an illegitimate regulation.)

Unfortunately, the way we currently write regulations leaves much to be desired: Basically, lobbyists pay hundreds of staffers to make hundreds of pages that no human being can be expected to read, and then hands them to Congress with a wink and a reminder of last year’s campaign contributions, who passes them without question. (Can you believe the US is one of the least corrupt governments in the world? Yup, that’s how bad it is out there.) As a result, we have a huge morass of regulations that nobody really understands, and there is a whole “industry” of people whose job it is to decode those regulations and use them to the advantage of whoever is paying them—lawyers. The amount of deadweight loss introduced into our economy is almost incalculable; if I had to guess, I’d have to put it somewhere in the trillions of dollars per year. At the very least, I can tell you that the $200 billion per year spent by corporations on litigation is all deadweight loss due to bad regulation. That is an industry that should not exist—I cannot stress this enough. We’ve become so accustomed to the idea that regulations are this complicated that people have to be paid six-figure salaries to understand them that we never stopped to think whether this made any sense. The US Constitution was originally printed on 6 pages.

The tax code should contain one formula for setting tax brackets with one or two parameters to adjust to circumstances, and then a list of maybe two dozen goods with special excise taxes for their externalities (like gasoline and tobacco). In reality it is over 70,000 pages.

Laws should be written with a clear and general intent, and then any weird cases can be resolved in court—because there will always be cases you couldn’t anticipate. Shakespeare was onto something when he wrote, “First, kill all the lawyers.” (I wouldn’t kill them; I’d fire them and make them find a job doing something genuinely useful, like engineering or management.)

All told, I think you could run an entire country with less than 100 pages of regulations. Furthermore, these should be 100 pages that are taught to every high school student, because after all, we’re supposed to be following them. How are we supposed to follow them if we don’t even know them? There’s a principle called ignorantia non excusatignorance does not excuse—which is frankly Kafkaesque. If you can be arrested for breaking a law you didn’t even know existed, in what sense can we call this a free society? (People make up strawman counterexamples: “Gee, officer, I didn’t know it was illegal to murder people!” But all you need is a standard of reasonable knowledge and due diligence, which courts already use to make decisions.)

So, in that sense, I absolutely favor deregulation. But my reasons are totally different from libertarians: I don’t want regulations to stop constraining businesses, I want regulations to be so simple and clear that no one can get around them. In the system I envision, you wouldn’t be able to sell fraudulent derivatives, because on page 3 it would clearly say that fraud is illegal and punishable in proportion to the amount of money involved.

But until that happens—and let’s face it, it’s gonna be awhile—we’re stuck with these ridiculous regulations, and that introduces a whole new type of asymmetric information. This is the way that regulations can make our economy less efficient; they distort what we can do not just by making it illegal, but by making it so we don’t know what is illegal.

The wealthy and powerful can hire people to explain—or evade—the regulations, while the rest of us are forced to live with them. You’ve felt this in a small way if you’ve ever gotten a parking ticket and didn’t know why. Asymmetric information strikes again.

The Rent is Too Damn High

Housing prices are on the rise again, but they’re still well below what they were at the peak of the 2008 bubble. It may be that we have not learned from our mistakes and another bubble is coming, but I don’t think it has hit us just yet. Meanwhile, rent prices have barely budged, and the portion of our population who pay more than 35% of their income on rent has risen to 44%.

Economists typically assess the “fair market value” of a house based upon its rental rate for so-called “housing services”—the actual benefits of living in a house. But to use the rental rate is to do what Larry Summers called “ketchup economics”; 40-ounce bottles of ketchup sell for exactly twice what 20-ounce bottles do, therefore the ketchup market is fair and efficient. (In fact even this is not true, since ketchup is sold under bulk pricing. This reminds me of a rather amusing situation I recently encountered at the grocery store: The price of individual 12-packs of Coke was $3, but you could buy sets of five for $10 each. This meant that buying five was cheaper in total—not just per unit—than buying four. The only way to draw that budget constraint is with a periodic discontinuity; it makes a sawtooth across your graph. We never talk about that sort of budget constraint in neoclassical economics, yet there it was in front of me.)

When we value houses by their rental rate, we’re doing ketchup economics. We’re ignoring the fact that the rent is too damn highpeople should not have to pay as much as they do in order to get housing in this country, particularly housing in or near major cities. When 44% of Americans are forced to spend over a third of their income just fulfilling the basic need of shelter, something is wrong. Only 60% of the price of a house is the actual cost to build it; another 20% is just the land. If that sounds reasonable to you, you’ve just become inured to our absurd land prices. The US has over 3 hectares per person of land; that’s 7.7 acres. A family of 3 should be able to claim—on average—9 hectares, or 23 acres. The price of a typical 0.5-acre lot for a family home should be negligible; it’s only 2% of your portion of America’s land.

And as for the argument that land near major cities should be more expensive? No, it shouldn’t; it’s land. What should be more expensive near major cities are buildings, and only then because they’re bigger buildings—even per unit it probably is about equal or even an economy of scale. There’s a classic argument that you’re paying to have infrastructure and be near places of work: The former is ignoring the fact that we pay taxes and utilities for that infrastructure; and the latter is implicitly assuming that it’s normal for our land ownership to be so monopolistic. In a competitive market, the price is driven by the cost, not by the value; the extra value you get from living near a city is supposed to go into your consumer surplus (the personal equivalent of profit—but in utility, not in dollars), not into the owner’s profit. And actually that marginal benefit is supposed to be driven to zero by the effect of overcrowding—though Krugman’s Nobel-winning work was about why that doesn’t necessarily happen and therefore we get Shanghai.

There’s also a more technical argument to be had here about the elasticity of land supply and demand; since both are so inelastic, we actually end up in the very disturbing scenario in which even a small shift in either one can throw prices all over the place, even if we are at market-clearing equilibrium. Markets just don’t work very well for inelastic goods; and if right now you’re thinking “Doesn’t that mean markets won’t work well for things like water, food, and medicine?” you’re exactly right and have learned well, Grasshopper.

So, the rent is too damn high. This naturally raises three questions:

  1. Why is the rent so high?
  2. What happens to our economy as a result?
  3. What can we do about it?

Let’s start with 1. Naturally, conservatives are going to blame regulation; here’s Business Insider doing exactly that in San Francisco and New York City respectively. Actually, they have a point here. Zoning laws are supposed to keep industrial pollution away from our homes, not keep people from building bigger buildings to fit more residents. All these arguments about the “feel” of the city or “visual appeal” should be immediately compared to the fact that they are making people homeless. So 200 people should live on the street so you can have the skyline look the way you always remember it? I won’t say what I’d really like to; I’m trying to keep this blog rated PG.

Similarly, rent-control is a terrible way to solve the homelessness problem; you’re created a segregated market with a price ceiling, and that’s going to create a shortage and raise prices in the other part of the market. The result is good for anyone who can get the rent-control and bad for everyone else. (The Cato study Business Insider cites does make one rather aggravating error; the distribution in a non-rent-controlled market isn’t normal, it’s lognormal. You can see that at a glance by the presence of those extremely high rents on the right side of the graph.)

Most people respond by saying, “Okay, but what do we do for people who can’t afford the regular rent? Do we just make them homeless!?” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cato Institute or Business Insider were okay with that—but I’m definitely not. So what would I do? Give them money. The solution to poverty has been staring us in the face for centuries, but we refuse to accept it. Poor people don’t have enough money, so give them money. Skeptical? Here are some direct experimental studies showing that unconditional cash transfers are one of the most effective anti-poverty measures. The only kind of anti-poverty program I’ve seen that has a better track record is medical aid. People are sick? Give them medicine. People are poor? Give them money. Yes, it’s that simple. People just don’t want to believe it; they might have to pay a bit more in taxes.

So yes, regulations are actually part of the problem. But they are clearly not the whole problem, and in my opinion not even the most important part. The most important part is monopolization. There’s a map that Occupy Wall Street likes to send around saying “What if our land were as unequal as our money?” But here’s the thing: IT IS. Indeed, the correlation between land ownership and wealth is astonishingly high; to a first approximation, your wealth is a constant factor times the land you own.

Remember how I said that the average American holds 7.7 acres or 3 hectares? (Especially in economics, averages can be quite deceiving. Bill Gates and I are on average billionaires. In fact, I guarantee that Bill Gates and you are on average billionaires; it doesn’t even matter how much wealth you have, it’ll still be true.)

Well, here are some decidedly above-average landowners:

  1. John Malone, 2.2 million acres or 9,000 km^2
  2. Ted Turner, 2 million acres or 8,100 km^2
  3. The Emmerson Family, 1.9 million acres or 7,700 km^2
  4. Brad Kelley, 1.5 million acres or 6,100 km^2
  1. The Pingree Family, 800,000 acres or 3,200 km^2
  1. The Ford Family, 600,000 acres or 2,400 km^2
  1. The Briscoe Family, 560,000 acres or 2,270 km^2
  2. W.T. Wagonner Estate, 535,000 acres or 2,170 km^2

I think you get the idea. Here are two more of particular note:

  1. Jeff Bezos, 290,000 acres or 1,170 km^2
  1. Koch Family, 239,000 acres or 970 km^2

Yes, that is the Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and the Koch Family who are trying to purchase control of our political system.

Interpolating the ones I couldn’t easily find data on, I estimate that these 102 landowners (there were ties in the top 100) hold a total of 30 million acres, of the 940 million acres in the United States. This means that 3% of the land is owned by—wait for it—0.000,03% of the population. To put it another way, if we confiscated the land of 102 people and split it all up into 0.5-acre family home lots, we could house 60 million households—roughly half the number of households in the nation. To be fair, some of it isn’t suitable for housing; but a good portion of it is. Figure even 1% is usable; that’s still enough for 600,000 households—which is to say every homeless person in America.

One thing you may also have noticed is how often the word “family” comes up. Using Openoffice Calc (it’s like Excel, but free!) I went through the whole top 100 list and counted the number of times “family” comes up; it’s 49 out of 100. Include “heirs” and “estate” and the number goes up to 66. That doesn’t mean they share with their immediate family; it says “family” when it’s been handed down for at least one generation. This means that almost two-thirds of these super-wealthy landowners inherited their holdings. This isn’t the American Dream of self-made millionaires; this is a landed gentry. We claim to be a capitalist society; but if you look at who owns our land and how it’s passed down, it doesn’t look like capitalism. It looks like feudalism.

Indeed, the very concept of rent is basically feudalist. Instead of owning the land we live on, we have to constantly pay someone else—usually someone quite rich—for the right to live there. Stop paying, and they can call the government to have us forced out. We are serfs by another name. In a truly efficient capitalist market with the kind of frictionless credit system neoclassicists imagine, you wouldn’t pay rent, you’d always pay a mortgage. The only time you’d be paying for housing without building equity would be when you stay at a hotel. If you’re going to live there more than a month, you should be building equity. And if you do want to move before your mortgage ends? No problem; sell it to the next tenant, paying off your mortgage and giving you that equity back—instead of all that rent, which is now in someone else’s pocket.

Because of this extreme inequality in land distribution, the top landholders can charge the rest of us monopolistic prices—thus making even more profits and buying even more land—and we have little choice but to pay what they demand. Because shelter is such a fundamental need, we are willing to pay just about whatever we have in order to secure it; so that’s what they charge us.

On to question 2. What happens to our economy as a result of this high rent?

In a word: 2009. Because our real estate market is so completely out of whack with any notion of efficient and fair pricing, it has become a free-for-all of speculation by so-called “investors”. (I hate that term; real investment is roads paved, factories built, children taught. What “investors” do is actually arbitrage. We are the investors, not them.)

A big part of this was also the deregulation of derivatives, particularly the baffling and insane “Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000” that basically banned regulation of derivatives—it was a law against making laws. Because of this bankers—or should I say banksters—were able to create ludicrously huge amounts of derivatives, as well as structure and repackage them in ways that would deceive their buyers into underestimating the risks. As a result there are now over a quadrillion dollars—yes, with a Q, sounds like a made-up number, $2e15—in nominal value of outstanding derivatives.

Because this is of course about 20 times as much as there is actual money in the entire world, sustaining this nominal value requires enormous amounts of what’s called leverage—which is to say, debt. When you “leverage” a stock purchase, for example, what you’re doing is buying the stock on a loan (a generally rather low-interest loan called “margin”), then when you sell the stock you pay back the loan. The “leverage” is the ratio between the size of the loan and the amount of actual capital you have to spend. This can theoretically give you quite large returns; for instance if you have $2000 in your stock account and you leverage 10 to 1, you can buy $20,000 worth of stock. If that stock then rises to $21,000—that’s only 5%, so it’s pretty likely this will happen—then you sell it and pay back the loan. For this example I’ll assume you pay 1% interest on your margin. In that case you would start with $2000 and end up with $2800; that’s a 40% return. A typical return from buying stock in cash is more like 7%, so even with interest you’re making almost 6 times as much. It sounds like such a deal!

But there is a catch: If that stock goes down and you have to sell it before it goes back up, you need to come up with the money to pay back your loan. Say it went down 5% instead of up; you now have $19,000 from selling it, but you owe $20,200 in debt with interest. Your $2000 is already gone, so you now have to come up with an additional $1,200 just to pay back your margin. Your return on $2000 is now negative—and huge: -160%. If you had bought the stock in cash, your return would only have been -5% and you’d still have $1900.

My example is for a 10 to 1 leverage, which is considered conservative. More typical leverages are 15 or 20; and some have gotten as high as 50 or even 70. This can lead to huge returns—or huge losses.

But okay, suppose we rein in the derivatives market and leverage gets back down to more reasonable levels. What damage is done by high real estate prices per se?

Well, basically it means that too much of our economy’s effort is going toward real estate. There is what we call deadweight loss, the loss of value that results from an inefficiency in the market. Money that people should be spending on other things—like cars, or clothes, or TVs—is instead being spent on real estate. Those products aren’t getting sold. People who would have had jobs making those products aren’t getting hired. Even when it’s not triggering global financial crises, a market distortion as large as our real estate system is a drain on the economy.

The distorted real estate market in particular also has another effect: It keeps the middle class from building wealth. We have to spend so much on our homes that we don’t have any left for stocks or bonds; as a result we earn a very low return on investment—inflation-adjusted it’s only about 0.2%. So meanwhile the rich are getting 4% on bonds, or 7% on stocks, or even 50% or 100% on highly-leveraged derivatives. In fact, it’s worse than that, because we’re also paying those rich people 20% on our credit cards. (Or even worse, 400% on payday loans. Four hundred percent. You typically pay a similar rate on overdraft fees—that $17.5 billion has to come from somewhere—but fortunately it’s usually not for long.)

Most people aren’t numerate enough to really appreciate how compound interest works—and banks are counting on that. 7%, 20%, what’s the difference really? 3 times as much? And if you had 50%, that would be about 7 times as much? Not exactly, no. Say you start with $1000 in each of these accounts. After 20 years, how much do you have in the 7% account? $3,869.68. Not too shabby, but what about that 20% account? $38,337.60—almost ten times as much. And if you managed to maintain a 50% return, how much would you have? $3,325,256.73—over $3.3 million, almost one thousand times as much.

The problem, I think, is people tend to think linearly; it’s hard to think exponentially. But there’s a really nice heuristic you can use, which is actually quite accurate: Divide the percentage into 69, and that is the time it will take to double. So 3% would take 69/3 = 23 years to double. 7% would take 69/7 = 10 years to double. 35% would take 69/35 = 2 years to double. And 400% would take 69/400 = 0.17 years (about 1/6, so 2 months) to double. These doublings are cumulative: If you double twice you’ve gone up 4 times; if you double 10 times you’ve gone up 1000 times. (For those who are a bit more numerate, this heuristic comes from the fact that 69 ~ 100*ln(2).)

Since returns are so much higher on other forms of wealth (not gold, by the way; don’t be fooled) than on homes, and those returns get compounded over time, this differential translates into ever-increasing inequality of wealth. This is what Piketty is talking about when he says r > g; r is the return on capital, and g is the growth rate of the economy. Stocks are at r, but homes are near g (actually less). By forcing you to spend your wealth on a house, they are also preventing you from increasing that wealth.

Finally, time for question 3. What should we do to fix this? Again, it’s simple: Take the land from the rich. (See how I love simple solutions?) Institute a 99% property tax on all land holdings over, say, 1000 acres. No real family farmer of the pastoral sort (as opposed to heir of an international agribusiness) would be affected.

I’m sure a lot of people will think this sounds unfair: “How dare you just… just… take people’s stuff! You… socialist!” But I ask you: On what basis was it theirs to begin with? Remember, we’re talking about land. We’re not talking about a product like a car, something they actually made (or rather administrated the manufacturing of). We’re not even talking about ideas or services, which raise their own quite complicated issues. These are chunks of the Earth; they were there a billion years before you and they will probably still be there a billion years hence.

That land was probably bought with money that they obtained through monopolistic pricing. Even worse, whom was it bought from? Ultimately it had to be bought from the people who stole it—literally stole, at the point of a gun—from the indigenous population. On what basis was it theirs to sell? And even the indigenous population may not have obtained it fairly; they weren’t the noble savages many imagine them to be, but had complex societies with equally complex political alliances and histories of intertribal warfare. A good portion of the land that any given tribe claims as their own was likely stolen from some other tribe long ago.

It’s honestly pretty bizarre that we buy and sell land; I think it would be valuable to think about how else we might distribute land that didn’t involve the absurdity of owning chunks of the planet. I can’t think of a good alternative system right now, so okay, maybe as a pragmatic matter the economy just works most efficiently if people can buy and sell land. But since it is a pragmatic justification—and not some kind of “fundamental natural right” ala Robert Nozick—then we are free as a society—particularly a democratic society—to make ad hoc adjustments in that pragmatic system as is necessary to make people’s lives better. So let’s take all the land, because the rent is too damn high.