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.

What exactly is “gentrification”? How should we deal with it?

Nov 26, JDN 2458083

“Gentrification” is a word that is used in a variety of mutually-inconsistent ways. If you compare the way social scientists use it to the way journalists use it, for example, they are almost completely orthogonal.

The word “gentrification” is meant to invoke the concept of a feudal gentry—a hereditary landed class that extracts rents from the rest of the population while contributing little or nothing themselves.

If indeed that is what we are talking about, then obviously this is bad. Moreover, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; there are some remarkably strong vestiges of feudalism in the developed world, even in the United States where we never formally had a tradition of feudal titles. There really is a significant portion of the world’s wealth held by a handful of billionaire landowner families.

But usually when people say “gentrification” they mean something much broader. Almost any kind of increase in urban real estate prices gets characterized as “gentrification” by at least somebody, and herein lies the problem.

In fact, the kind of change that is most likely to get characterized as “gentrification” isn’t even the rising real estate prices we should be most worried about. People aren’t concerned when the prices of suburban homes double in 20 years. You might think that things that are already too expensive getting more expensive would be the main concern, but on the contrary, people are most likely to cry “gentrification” when housing prices rise in poor areas where housing is cheap.

One of the most common fears about gentrification is that it will displace local residents. In fact, the best quasi-experimental studies show little or no displacement effect. It’s actually mainly middle-class urbanites who get displaced by rising rents. Poor people typically own their homes, and actually benefit from rising housing prices. Young upwardly-mobile middle-class people move to cities to rent apartments near where they work, and tend to assume that’s how everyone lives, but it’s not. Rising rents in a city are far more likely to push out its grad students than they are poor families that have lived there for generations. Part of why displacement does not occur may be because of policies specifically implemented to fight it, such as subsidized housing and rent control. If that’s so, let’s keep on subsidizing housing (though rent control will always be a bad idea).

Nor is gentrification actually a very widespread phenomenon. The majority of poor neighborhoods remain poor indefinitely. In most studies, only about 30% of neighborhoods classified as “gentrifiable” actually end up “gentrifying”. Less than 10% of the neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 had low poverty rates in 2010.

Most people think gentrification reduces crime, but in the short run the opposite is the case. Robbery and larceny are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Criminals are already there, and suddenly they get much more valuable targets to steal from, so they do.

There is also a general perception that gentrification involves White people pushing Black people out, but this is also an overly simplistic view. First of all, a lot of gentrification is led by upwardly-mobile Black and Latino people. Black people who live in gentrified neighborhoods seem to be better off than Black people who live in non-gentrified neighborhoods; though selection bias may contribute to this effect, it can’t be all that strong, or we’d observe a much stronger displacement effect. Moreover, some studies have found that gentrification actually tends to increase the racial diversity of neighborhoods, and may actually help fight urban self-segregation, though it does also tend to increase racial polarization by forcing racial mixing.

What should we conclude from all this? I think the right conclusion is we are asking the wrong question.

Rising housing prices in poor areas aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, and policies designed specifically to increase or decrease housing prices are likely to have harmful side effects. What we need to be focusing on is not houses or neighborhoods but people. Poverty is definitely a problem, for sure. Therefore we should be fighting poverty, not “gentrification”. Directly transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and then let the housing market fall where it may.

There is still some role for government in urban planning more generally, regarding things like disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and transit systems. It may even be worthwhile to design regulations or incentives that directly combat racial segregation at the neighborhood level, for, as the Schelling Segregation Model shows, it doesn’t take a large amount of discriminatory preference to have a large impact on socioeconomic outcomes. But don’t waste effort fighting “gentrification”; directly design policies that will incentivize desegregation.

Rising rent as a proportion of housing prices is still bad, and the fundamental distortions in our mortgage system that prevent people from buying houses are a huge problem. But rising housing prices are most likely to be harmful in rich neighborhoods, where housing is already overpriced; in poor neighborhoods where housing is cheap, rising prices might well be a good thing.
In fact, I have a proposal to rapidly raise homeownership across the United States, which is almost guaranteed to work, directly corrects an enormous distortion in financial markets, and would cost about as much as the mortgage interest deduction (which should probably be eliminated, as most economists agree). Give each US adult a one-time grant voucher which gives them $40,000 that can only be spent as a down payment on purchasing a home. Each time someone turns 18, they get a voucher. You only get one over your lifetime, so use it wisely (otherwise the policy could become extremely expensive); but this is an immediate direct transfer of wealth that also reduces your credit constraint. I know I for one would be house-hunting right now if I were offered such a voucher. The mortgage interest deduction means nothing to me, because I can’t afford a down payment. Where the mortgage interest deduction is regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, this policy gives everyone the same amount, like a basic income.

In the short run, this policy would probably be expensive, as we’d have to pay out a large number of vouchers at once; but with our current long-run demographic trends, the amortized cost is basically the same as the mortgage interest deduction. And the US government especially should care about the long-run amortized cost, as it is an institution that has lasted over 200 years without ever missing a payment and can currently borrow at negative real interest rates.

This is one of the worst wildfire seasons in American history. But it won’t be for long.

Oct 22, JDN 2458049

At least 38 people have now been killed by the wildfires that are still ongoing in California; in addition, 5700 buildings have been destroyed and 190,000 acres of land burned. The State of California keeps an updated map of all the fires that are ongoing and how well-controlled they are; it’s not a pretty sight.

While the particular details are extreme, this is not an isolated incident. This year alone, wildfires have destroyed over 8 million acres of land in the US. In 2015, that figure was 10 million acres.

Property damage for this year’s wildfires in California is estimated at over $65 billion. That’s more than what Trump recently added to the military budget, and getting close to our total spending on food stamps.

There is a very clear upward trend in the scale and intensity of wildfires just over the last 50 years, and the obvious explanation is climate change. As climate change gets worse, these numbers are projected to increase between 30% and 50% by the 2040s. We still haven’t broken the record of fire damage in 1910, but as the upward trend continues we might soon enough.

It’s important to keep the death tolls in perspective; much as with hurricanes, our evacuation protocols and first-response agencies do their jobs very well, and as a result we’ve been averaging only about 10 wildfire deaths per year over the whole United States for the last century. In a country of over 300 million people, that’s really an impressively small number. That number has also been trending upward, however, so we shouldn’t get complacent.

Climate change isn’t the only reason these fires are especially damaging. It also matters where you build houses. We have been expanding our urban sprawl into fire-prone zones, and that is putting a lot of people in danger. Since 1990, over 60% of new homes were built in “wildland-urban interface areas” that are at higher risk.

Why are we doing this? Because housing prices in urban centers are too expensive for people to live there, but that is where most of the jobs are. So people have little choice but to live in exurbs and suburbs closer to the areas where fires are worst. That’s right: The fires are destroying homes and killing people because the rent is too damn high.

We need to find a solution to this problem of soaring housing prices. And since housing is such a huge proportion of our total expenditure—we spend more on housing than we do on all government spending combined—this would have an enormous impact on our entire economy. If you compare the income of a typical American today to most of the world’s population, or even to a typical American a century ago, we should feel extremely rich, but we don’t—largely because we spend so much of it just on keeping a roof over our heads.

Real estate is also a major driver of economic inequality. Wealth inequality is highest in urban centers where homeownership is rare. The large wealth gaps between White and non-White Americans can be in large part attributed to policies that made homeownership much more difficult for non-White people. Housing value inequality and overall wealth inequality are very strongly correlated. The high inequality in housing prices is making it far more difficult for people to move from poor regions to rich regions, holding back one of the best means we had for achieving more equal incomes.

Moreover, the rise in capital income share since the 1970s is driven almost entirely by real estate, rather than actual physical capital. The top 10% richest housing communities constitute over 52% of the total housing wealth in the US.

There is a lot of debate about what exactly causes these rising housing prices. No doubt, there are many factors contributing, from migration patterns to zoning regulations to income inequality in general. In a later post, I’ll get into why I think many of the people who think they are fighting the problem are actually making it worse, and suggest some ideas for what they should be doing instead.

Why is housing so expensive?

Apr 30, JDN 2457874

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

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

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

But this is not a uniquely American problem.

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

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

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

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

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

There are a lot of reasons that have been proposed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes people have to lose their jobs. This isn’t a bad thing.

Oct 8, JDN 2457670

Eleizer Yudkowsky (founder of the excellent blog forum Less Wrong) has a term he likes to use to distinguish his economic policy views from either liberal, conservative, or even libertarian: “econoliterate”, meaning the sort of economic policy ideas one comes up with when one actually knows a good deal about economics.

In general I think Yudkowsky overestimates this effect; I’ve known some very knowledgeable economists who disagree quite strongly over economic policy, and often following the conventional political lines of liberal versus conservative: Liberal economists want more progressive taxation and more Keynesian monetary and fiscal policy, while conservative economists want to reduce taxes on capital and remove regulations. Theoretically you can want all these things—as Miles Kimball does—but it’s rare. Conservative economists hate minimum wage, and lean on the theory that says it should be harmful to employment; liberal economists are ambivalent about minimum wage, and lean on the empirical data that shows it has almost no effect on employment. Which is more reliable? The empirical data, obviously—and until more economists start thinking that way, economics is never truly going to be a science as it should be.

But there are a few issues where Yudkowsky’s “econoliterate” concept really does seem to make sense, where there is one view held by most people, and another held by economists, regardless of who is liberal or conservative. One such example is free trade, which almost all economists believe in. A recent poll of prominent economists by the University of Chicago found literally zero who agreed with protectionist tariffs.

Another example is my topic for today: People losing their jobs.

Not unemployment, which both economists and almost everyone else agree is bad; but people losing their jobs. The general consensus among the public seems to be that people losing jobs is always bad, while economists generally consider it a sign of an economy that is run smoothly and efficiently.

To be clear, of course losing your job is bad for you; I don’t mean to imply that if you lose your job you shouldn’t be sad or frustrated or anxious about that, particularly not in our current system. Rather, I mean to say that policy which tries to keep people in their jobs is almost always a bad idea.

I think the problem is that most people don’t quite grasp that losing your job and not having a job are not the same thing. People not having jobs who want to have jobs—unemployment—is a bad thing. But losing your job doesn’t mean you have to stay unemployed; it could simply mean you get a new job. And indeed, that is what it should mean, if the economy is running properly.

Check out this graph, from FRED:

hires_separations

The red line shows hires—people getting jobs. The blue line shows separations—people losing jobs or leaving jobs. During a recession (the most recent two are shown on this graph), people don’t actually leave their jobs faster than usual; if anything, slightly less. Instead what happens is that hiring rates drop dramatically. When the economy is doing well (as it is right now, more or less), both hires and separations are at very high rates.

Why is this? Well, think about what a job is, really: It’s something that needs done, that no one wants to do for free, so someone pays someone else to do it. Once that thing gets done, what should happen? The job should end. It’s done. The purpose of the job was not to provide for your standard of living; it was to achieve the task at hand. Once it doesn’t need done, why keep doing it?

We tend to lose sight of this, for a couple of reasons. First, we don’t have a basic income, and our social welfare system is very minimal; so a job usually is the only way people have to provide for their standard of living, and they come to think of this as the purpose of the job. Second, many jobs don’t really “get done” in any clear sense; individual tasks are completed, but new ones always arise. After every email sent is another received; after every patient treated is another who falls ill.

But even that is really only true in the short run. In the long run, almost all jobs do actually get done, in the sense that no one has to do them anymore. The job of cleaning up after horses is done (with rare exceptions). The job of manufacturing vacuum tubes for computers is done. Indeed, the job of being a computer—that used to be a profession, young women toiling away with slide rules—is very much done. There are no court jesters anymore, no town criers, and very few artisans (and even then, they’re really more like hobbyists). There are more writers now than ever, and occasional stenographers, but there are no scribes—no one powerful but illiterate pays others just to write things down, because no one powerful is illiterate (and even few who are not powerful, and fewer all the time).

When a job “gets done” in this long-run sense, we usually say that it is obsolete, and again think of this as somehow a bad thing, like we are somehow losing the ability to do something. No, we are gaining the ability to do something better. Jobs don’t become obsolete because we can’t do them anymore; they become obsolete because we don’t need to do them anymore. Instead of computers being a profession that toils with slide rules, they are thinking machines that fit in our pockets; and there are plenty of jobs now for software engineers, web developers, network administrators, hardware designers, and so on as a result.

Soon, there will be no coal miners, and very few oil drillers—or at least I hope so, for the sake of our planet’s climate. There will be far fewer auto workers (robots have already done most of that already), but far more construction workers who install rail lines. There will be more nuclear engineers, more photovoltaic researchers, even more miners and roofers, because we need to mine uranium and install solar panels on rooftops.

Yet even by saying that I am falling into the trap: I am making it sound like the benefit of new technology is that it opens up more new jobs. Typically it does do that, but that isn’t what it’s for. The purpose of technology is to get things done.

Remember my parable of the dishwasher. The goal of our economy is not to make people work; it is to provide people with goods and services. If we could invent a machine today that would do the job of everyone in the world and thereby put us all out of work, most people think that would be terrible—but in fact it would be wonderful.

Or at least it could be, if we did it right. See, the problem right now is that while poor people think that the purpose of a job is to provide for their needs, rich people think that the purpose of poor people is to do jobs. If there are no jobs to be done, why bother with them? At that point, they’re just in the way! (Think I’m exaggerating? Why else would anyone put a work requirement on TANF and SNAP? To do that, you must literally think that poor people do not deserve to eat or have homes if they aren’t, right now, working for an employer. You can couch that in cold economic jargon as “maximizing work incentives”, but that’s what you’re doing—you’re threatening people with starvation if they can’t or won’t find jobs.)

What would happen if we tried to stop people from losing their jobs? Typically, inefficiency. When you aren’t allowed to lay people off when they are no longer doing useful work, we end up in a situation where a large segment of the population is being paid but isn’t doing useful work—and unlike the situation with a basic income, those people would lose their income, at least temporarily, if they quit and tried to do something more useful. There is still considerable uncertainty within the empirical literature on just how much “employment protection” (laws that make it hard to lay people off) actually creates inefficiency and reduces productivity and employment, so it could be that this effect is small—but even so, likewise it does not seem to have the desired effect of reducing unemployment either. It may be like minimum wage, where the effect just isn’t all that large. But it’s probably not saving people from being unemployed; it may simply be shifting the distribution of unemployment so that people with protected jobs are almost never unemployed and people without it are unemployed much more frequently. (This doesn’t have to be based in law, either; while it is made by custom rather than law, it’s quite clear that tenure for university professors makes tenured professors vastly more secure, but at the cost of making employment tenuous and underpaid for adjuncts.)

There are other policies we could make that are better than employment protection, active labor market policies like those in Denmark that would make it easier to find a good job. Yet even then, we’re assuming that everyone needs jobs–and increasingly, that just isn’t true.

So, when we invent a new technology that replaces workers, workers are laid off from their jobs—and that is as it should be. What happens next is what we do wrong, and it’s not even anybody in particular; this is something our whole society does wrong: All those displaced workers get nothing. The extra profit from the more efficient production goes entirely to the shareholders of the corporation—and those shareholders are almost entirely members of the top 0.01%. So the poor get poorer and the rich get richer.

The real problem here is not that people lose their jobs; it’s that capital ownership is distributed so unequally. And boy, is it ever! Here are some graphs I made of the distribution of net wealth in the US, using from the US Census.

Here are the quintiles of the population as a whole:

net_wealth_us

And here are the medians by race:

net_wealth_race

Medians by age:

net_wealth_age

Medians by education:

net_wealth_education

And, perhaps most instructively, here are the quintiles of people who own their homes versus renting (The rent is too damn high!)

net_wealth_rent

All that is just within the US, and already they are ranging from the mean net wealth of the lowest quintile of people under 35 (-$45,000, yes negative—student loans) to the mean net wealth of the highest quintile of people with graduate degrees ($3.8 million). All but the top quintile of renters are poorer than all but the bottom quintile of homeowners. And the median Black or Hispanic person has less than one-tenth the wealth of the median White or Asian person.

If we look worldwide, wealth inequality is even starker. Based on UN University figures, 40% of world wealth is owned by the top 1%; 70% by the top 5%; and 80% by the top 10%. There is less total wealth in the bottom 80% than in the 80-90% decile alone. According to Oxfam, the richest 85 individuals own as much net wealth as the poorest 3.7 billion. They are the 0.000,001%.

If we had an equal distribution of capital ownership, people would be happy when their jobs became obsolete, because it would free them up to do other things (either new jobs, or simply leisure time), while not decreasing their income—because they would be the shareholders receiving those extra profits from higher efficiency. People would be excited to hear about new technologies that might displace their work, especially if those technologies would displace the tedious and difficult parts and leave the creative and fun parts. Losing your job could be the best thing that ever happened to you.

The business cycle would still be a problem; we have good reason not to let recessions happen. But stopping the churn of hiring and firing wouldn’t actually make our society better off; it would keep people in jobs where they don’t belong and prevent us from using our time and labor for its best use.

Perhaps the reason most people don’t even think of this solution is precisely because of the extreme inequality of capital distribution—and the fact that it has more or less always been this way since the dawn of civilization. It doesn’t seem to even occur to most people that capital income is a thing that exists, because they are so far removed from actually having any amount of capital sufficient to generate meaningful income. Perhaps when a robot takes their job, on some level they imagine that the robot is getting paid, when of course it’s the shareholders of the corporations that made the robot and the corporations that are using the robot in place of workers. Or perhaps they imagine that those shareholders actually did so much hard work they deserve to get paid that money for all the hours they spent.

Because pay is for work, isn’t it? The reason you get money is because you’ve earned it by your hard work?

No. This is a lie, told to you by the rich and powerful in order to control you. They know full well that income doesn’t just come from wages—most of their income doesn’t come from wages! Yet this is even built into our language; we say “net worth” and “earnings” rather than “net wealth” and “income”. (Parade magazine has a regular segment called “What People Earn”; it should be called “What People Receive”.) Money is not your just reward for your hard work—at least, not always.

The reason you get money is that this is a useful means of allocating resources in our society. (Remember, money was created by governments for the purpose of facilitating economic transactions. It is not something that occurs in nature.) Wages are one way to do that, but they are far from the only way; they are not even the only way currently in use. As technology advances, we should expect a larger proportion of our income to go to capital—but what we’ve been doing wrong is setting it up so that only a handful of people actually own any capital.

Fix that, and maybe people will finally be able to see that losing your job isn’t such a bad thing; it could even be satisfying, the fulfillment of finally getting something done.

What you need to know about tax incidence

JDN 2457152 EDT 14:54.

I said in my previous post that I consider tax incidence to be one of the top ten things you should know about economics. If I actually try to make a top ten list, I think it goes something like this:

  1. Supply and demand
  2. Monopoly and oligopoly
  3. Externalities
  4. Tax incidence
  5. Utility, especially marginal utility of wealth
  6. Pareto-efficiency
  7. Risk and loss aversion
  8. Biases and heuristics, including sunk-cost fallacy, scope neglect, herd behavior, anchoring and representative heuristic
  9. Asymmetric information
  10. Winner-takes-all effect

So really tax incidence is in my top five things you should know about economics, and yet I still haven’t talked about it very much. Well, today I will. The basic principles of supply and demand I’m basically assuming you know, but I really should spend some more time on monopoly and externalities at some point.

Why is tax incidence so important? Because of one central fact: The person who pays the tax is not the person who writes the check.

It doesn’t matter whether a tax is paid by the buyer or the seller; it matters what the buyer and seller can do to avoid the tax. If you can change your behavior in order to avoid paying the tax—buy less stuff, or buy somewhere else, or deduct something—you will not bear the tax as much as someone else who can’t do anything to avoid the tax, even if you are the one who writes the check. If you can avoid it and they can’t, other parties in the transaction will adjust their prices in order to eat the tax on your behalf.

Thus, if you have a good that you absolutely must buy no matter what—like, say, table saltand then we make everyone who sells that good pay an extra $5 per kilogram, I can guarantee you that you will pay an extra $5 per kilogram, and the suppliers will make just as much money as they did before. (A salt tax would be an excellent way to redistribute wealth from ordinary people to corporations, if you’re into that sort of thing. Not that we have any trouble doing that in America.)

On the other hand, if you have a good that you’ll only buy at a very specific price—like, say, fast food—then we can make you write the check for a tax of an extra $5 per kilogram you use, and in real terms you’ll pay hardly any tax at all, because the sellers will either eat the cost themselves by lowering the prices or stop selling the product entirely. (A fast food tax might actually be a good idea as a public health measure, because it would reduce production and consumption of fast food—remember, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, making cheeseburgers a good deal more dangerous than terrorists—but it’s a bad idea as a revenue measure, because rather than pay it, people are just going to buy and sell less.)

In the limit in which supply and demand are both completely fixed (perfectly inelastic), you can tax however you want and it’s just free redistribution of wealth however you like. In the limit in which supply and demand are both locked into a single price (perfectly elastic), you literally cannot tax that good—you’ll just eliminate production entirely. There aren’t a lot of perfectly elastic goods in the real world, but the closest I can think of is cash. If you instituted a 2% tax on all cash withdrawn, most people would stop using cash basically overnight. If you want a simple way to make all transactions digital, find a way to enforce a cash tax. When you have a perfect substitute available, taxation eliminates production entirely.

To really make sense out of tax incidence, I’m going to need a lot of a neoclassical economists’ favorite thing: Supply and demand curves. These things pop up everywhere in economics; and they’re quite useful. I’m not so sure about their application to things like aggregate demand and the business cycle, for example, but today I’m going to use them for the sort of microeconomic small-market stuff that they were originally designed for; and what I say here is going to be basically completely orthodox, right out of what you’d find in an ECON 301 textbook.

Let’s assume that things are linear, just to make the math easier. You’d get basically the same answers with nonlinear demand and supply functions, but it would be a lot more work. Likewise, I’m going to assume a unit tax on goods—like $2890 per hectare—as opposed to a proportional tax on sales—like 6% property tax—again, for mathematical simplicity.

The next concept I’m going to have to talk about is elasticitywhich is the proportional amount that quantity sold changes relative to price. If price increases 2% and you buy 4% less, you have a demand elasticity of -2. If price increases 2% and you buy 1% less, you have a demand elasticity of -1/2. If price increases 3% and you sell 6% more, you have a supply elasticity of 2. If price decreases 5% and you sell 1% less, you have a supply elasticity of 1/5.

Elasticity doesn’t have any units of measurement, it’s just a number—which is part of why we like to use it. It also has some very nice mathematical properties involving logarithms, but we won’t be needing those today.

The price that renters are willing and able to pay, the demand price PD will start at their maximum price, the reserve price PR, and then it will decrease linearly according to the quantity of land rented Q, according to a linear function (simply because we assumed that) which will vary according to a parameter e that represents the elasticity of demand (it isn’t strictly equal to it, but it’s sort of a linearization).

We’re interested in what is called the consumer surplus; it is equal to the total amount of value that buyers get from their purchases, converted into dollars, minus the amount they had to pay for those purchases. This we add to the producer surplus, which is the amount paid for those purchases minus the cost of producing themwhich is basically just the same thing as profit. Togerther the consumer surplus and producer surplus make the total economic surplus, which economists generally try to maximize. Because different people have different marginal utility of wealth, this is actually a really terrible idea for deep and fundamental reasons—taking a house from Mitt Romney and giving it to a homeless person would most definitely reduce economic surplus, even though it would obviously make the world a better place. Indeed, I think that many of the problems in the world, particularly those related to inequality, can be traced to the fact that markets maximize economic surplus rather than actual utility. But for now I’m going to ignore all that, and pretend that maximizing economic surplus is what we want to do.

You can read off the economic surplus straight from the supply and demand curves; it’s the area between the lines. (Mathematically, it’s an integral; but that’s equivalent to the area under a curve, and with straight lines they’re just triangles.) I’m going to call the consumer surplus just “surplus”, and producer surplus I’ll call “profit”.

Below the demand curve and above the price is the surplus, and below the price and above the supply curve is the profit:

elastic_supply_competitive_labeled

I’m going to be bold here and actually use equations! Hopefully this won’t turn off too many readers. I will give each equation in both a simple text format and in proper LaTeX. Remember, you can render LaTeX here.

PD = PR – 1/e * Q

P_D = P_R – \frac{1}{e} Q \\

The marginal cost that landlords have to pay, the supply price PS, is a bit weirder, as I’ll talk about more in a moment. For now let’s say that it is a linear function, starting at zero cost for some quantity Q0 and then increases linearly according to a parameter n that similarly represents the elasticity of supply.

PS = 1/n * (Q – Q0)

P_S = \frac{1}{n} \left( Q – Q_0 \right) \\

Now, if you introduce a tax, there will be a difference between the price that renters pay and the price that landlords receive—namely, the tax, which we’ll call T. I’m going to assume that, on paper, the landlord pays the whole tax. As I said above, this literally does not matter. I could assume that on paper the renter pays the whole tax, and the real effect on the distribution of wealth would be identical. All we’d have to do is set PD = P and PS = P – T; the consumer and producer surplus would end up exactly the same. Or we could do something in between, with P’D = P + rT and P’S = P – (1 – r) T.

Then, if the market is competitive, we just set the prices equal, taking the tax into account:

P = PD – T = PR – 1/e * Q – T = PS = 1/n * (Q – Q0)

P= P_D – T = P_R – \frac{1}{e} Q – T= P_S = \frac{1}{n} \left(Q – Q_0 \right) \\

P_R – 1/e * Q – T = 1/n * (Q – Q0)

P_R – \frac{1}{e} Q – T = \frac{1}{n} \left(Q – Q_0 \right) \\

Notice the equivalency here; if we set P’D = P + rT and P’S = P – (1 – r) T, so that the consumer now pays a fraction of the tax r.

P = P’D – rT = P_r – 1/e*Q = P’S + (1 – r) T + 1/n * (Q – Q0) + (1 – r) T

P^\prime_D – r T = P = P_R – \frac{1}{e} Q = P^\prime_S = \frac{1}{n} \left(Q – Q_0 \right) + (1 – r) T\\

The result is exactly the same:

P_R – 1/e * Q – T = 1/n * (Q – Q0)

P_R – \frac{1}{e} Q – T = \frac{1}{n} \left(Q – Q_0 \right) \\

I’ll spare you the algebra, but this comes out to:

Q = (PR – T)/(1/n + 1/e) + (Q0)/(1 + n/e)

Q = \frac{P_R – T}{\frac{1}{n} + \frac{1}{e}} + \frac{Q_0}{1 + \frac{n}{e}}

P = (PR – T)/(1+ n/e) – (Q0)/(e + n)

P = \frac{P_R – T}}{1 + \frac{n}{e}} – \frac{Q_0}{e+n} \\

That’s if the market is competitive.

If the market is a monopoly, instead of setting the prices equal, we set the price the landlord receives equal to the marginal revenue—which takes into account the fact that increasing the amount they sell forces them to reduce the price they charge everyone else. Thus, the marginal revenue drops faster than the price as the quantity sold increases.

After a bunch of algebra (and just a dash of calculus), that comes out to these very similar, but not quite identical, equations:

Q = (PR – T)/(1/n + 2/e) + (Q0)/(1+ 2n/e)

Q = \frac{P_R – T}{\frac{1}{n} + \frac{2}{e}} + \frac{Q_0}{1 + \frac{2n}{e}} \\

P = (PR – T)*((1/n + 1/e)/(1/n + 2/e) – (Q0)/(e + 2n)

P = \left( P_R – T\right)\frac{\frac{1}{n} + \frac{1}{e}}{\frac{1}{n} + \frac{2}{e}} – \frac{Q_0}{e+2n} \\

Yes, it changes some 1s into 2s. That by itself accounts for the full effect of monopoly. That’s why I think it’s worthwhile to use the equations; they are deeply elegant and express in a compact form all of the different cases. They look really intimidating right now, but for most of the cases we’ll consider these general equations simplify quite dramatically.

There are several cases to consider.

Land has an extremely high cost to create—for practical purposes, we can consider its supply fixed, that is, perfectly inelastic. If the market is competitive, so that landlords have no market power, then they will simply rent out all the land they have at whatever price the market will bear:

Inelastic_supply_competitive_labeled

This is like setting n = 0 and T = 0 in the above equations, the competitive ones.

Q = Q0

Q = Q_0 \\

P = PR – Q0/e

P = P_R – \frac{Q_0}{e} \\

If we now introduce a tax, it will fall completely on the landlords, because they have little choice but to rent out all the land they have, and they can only rent it at a price—including tax—that the market will bear.

inelastic_supply_competitive_tax_labeled

Now we still have n = 0 but not T = 0.

Q = Q0

Q = Q_0 \\

P = PR – T – Q0/e

P = P_R – T – \frac{Q_0}{e} \\

The consumer surplus will be:

½ (Q)(PR – P – T) = 1/(2e)* Q02

\frac{1}{2}Q(P_R – P – T) = \frac{1}{2e}Q_0^2 \\

Notice how T isn’t in the result. The consumer surplus is unaffected by the tax.

The producer surplus, on the other hand, will be reduced by the tax:

(Q)(P) = (PR – T – Q0/e) Q0 = PR Q0 – 1/e Q02 – TQ0

(Q)(P) = (P_R – T – \frac{Q_0}{e})Q_0 = P_R Q_0 – \frac{1}{e} Q_0^2 – T Q_0 \\

T appears linearly as TQ0, which is the same as the tax revenue. All the money goes directly from the landlord to the government, as we want if our goal is to redistribute wealth without raising rent.

But now suppose that the market is not competitive, and by tacit collusion or regulatory capture the landlords can exert some market power; this is quite likely the case in reality. Actually in reality we’re probably somewhere in between monopoly and competition, either oligopoly or monopolistic competitionwhich I will talk about a good deal more in a later post, I promise.

It could be that demand is still sufficiently high that even with their market power, landlords have an incentive to rent out all their available land, in which case the result will be the same as in the competitive market.

inelastic_supply_monopolistic_labeled

A tax will then fall completely on the landlords as before:

inelastic_supply_monopolistic_tax_labeled

Indeed, in this case it doesn’t really matter that the market is monopolistic; everything is the same as it would be under a competitive market. Notice how if you set n = 0, the monopolistic equations and the competitive equations come out exactly the same. The good news is, this is quite likely our actual situation! So even in the presence of significant market power the land tax can redistribute wealth in just the way we want.

But there are a few other possibilities. One is that demand is not sufficiently high, so that the landlords’ market power causes them to actually hold back some land in order to raise the price:

zerobound_supply_monopolistic_labeled

This will create some of what we call deadweight loss, in which some economic value is wasted. By restricting the land they rent out, the landlords make more profit, but the harm they cause to tenant is created than the profit they gain, so there is value wasted.

Now instead of setting n = 0, we actually set n = infinity. Why? Because the reason that the landlords restrict the land they sell is that their marginal revenue is actually negative beyond that point—they would actually get less money in total if they sold more land. Instead of being bounded by their cost of production (because they have none, the land is there whether they sell it or not), they are bounded by zero. (Once again we’ve hit upon a fundamental concept in economics, particularly macroeconomics, that I don’t have time to talk about today: the zero lower bound.) Thus, they can change quantity all they want (within a certain range) without changing the price, which is equivalent to a supply elasticity of infinity.

Introducing a tax will then exacerbate this deadweight loss (adding DWL2 to the original DWL1), because it provides even more incentive for the landlords to restrict the supply of land:

zerobound_supply_monopolistic_tax_labeled

Q = e/2*(PR – T)

Q = \frac{e}{2} \left(P_R – T\right)\\

P = 1/2*(PR – T)

P = \frac{1}{2} \left(P_R – T\right) \\

The quantity Q0 completely drops out, because it doesn’t matter how much land is available (as long as it’s enough); it only matters how much land it is profitable to rent out.

We can then find the consumer and producer surplus, and see that they are both reduced by the tax. The consumer surplus is as follows:

½ (Q)(PR – 1/2(PR – T)) = e/4*(PR2 – T2)

\frac{1}{2}Q \left( P_R – \frac{1}{2}left( P – T \right) \right) = \frac{e}{4}\left( P_R^2 – T^2 \right) \\

This time, the tax does have an effect on reducing the consumer surplus.

The producer surplus, on the other hand, will be:

(Q)(P) = 1/2*(PR – T)*e/2*(PR – T) = e/4*(PR – T)2

(Q)(P) = \frac{1}{2}\left(P_R – T \right) \frac{e}{2} \left(P_R – T\right) = \frac{e}{4} \left(P_R – T)^2 \\

Notice how it is also reduced by the tax—and no longer in a simple linear way.

The tax revenue is now a function of the demand:

TQ = e/2*T(PR – T)

T Q = \frac{e}{2} T (P_R – T) \\

If you add all these up, you’ll find that the sum is this:

e/2 * (PR^2 – T^2)

\frac{e}{2} \left(P_R^2 – T^2 \right) \\

The sum is actually reduced by an amount equal to e/2*T^2, which is the deadweight loss.

Finally there is an even worse scenario, in which the tax is so large that it actually creates an incentive to restrict land where none previously existed:

zerobound_supply_monopolistic_hugetax_labeled

Notice, however, that because the supply of land is inelastic the deadweight loss is still relatively small compared to the huge amount of tax revenue.

But actually this isn’t the whole story, because a land tax provides an incentive to get rid of land that you’re not profiting from. If this incentive is strong enough, the monopolistic power of landlords will disappear, as the unused land gets sold to more landholders or to the government. This is a way of avoiding the tax, but it’s one that actually benefits society, so we don’t mind incentivizing it.

Now, let’s compare this to our current system of property taxes, which include the value of buildings. Buildings are expensive to create, but we build them all the time; the supply of buildings is strongly dependent upon the price at which those buildings will sell. This makes for a supply curve that is somewhat elastic.

If the market were competitive and we had no taxes, it would be optimally efficient:

elastic_supply_competitive_labeled

Property taxes create an incentive to produce fewer buildings, and this creates deadweight loss. Notice that this happens even if the market is perfectly competitive:

elastic_supply_competitive_tax_labeled

Since both n and e are finite and nonzero, we’d need to use the whole equations: Since the algebra is such a mess, I don’t see any reason to subject you to it; but suffice it to say, the T does not drop out. Tenants do see their consumer surplus reduced, and the larger the tax the more this is so.

Now, suppose that the market for buildings is monopolistic, as it most likely is. This would create deadweight loss even in the absence of a tax:

elastic_supply_monopolistic_labeled

But a tax will add even more deadweight loss:

elastic_supply_monopolistic_tax_labeled

Once again, we’d need the full equations, and once again it’s a mess; but the result is, as before, that the tax gets passed on to the tenants in the form of more restricted sales and therefore higher rents.

Because of the finite supply elasticity, there’s no way that the tax can avoid raising the rent. As long as landlords have to pay more taxes when they build more or better buildings, they are going to raise the rent in those buildings accordingly—whether the market is competitive or not.

If the market is indeed monopolistic, there may be ways to bring the rent down: suppose we know what the competitive market price of rent should be, and we can establish rent control to that effect. If we are truly correct about the price to set, this rent control can not only reduce rent, it can actually reduce the deadweight loss:

effective_rent_control_tax_labeled

But if we set the rent control too low, or don’t properly account for the varying cost of different buildings, we can instead introduce a new kind of deadweight loss, by making it too expensive to make new buildings.

ineffective_rent_control_tax_labeled

In fact, what actually seems to happen is more complicated than that—because otherwise the number of buildings is obviously far too small, rent control is usually set to affect some buildings and not others. So what seems to happen is that the rent market fragments into two markets: One, which is too small, but very good for those few who get the chance to use it; and the other, which is unaffected by the rent control but is more monopolistic and therefore raises prices even further. This is why almost all economists are opposed to rent control (PDF); it doesn’t solve the problem of high rent and simply causes a whole new set of problems.

A land tax with a basic income, on the other hand, would help poor people at least as much as rent control presently does—probably a good deal more—without discouraging the production and maintenance of new apartment buildings.

But now we come to a key point: The land tax must be uniform per hectare.

If it is instead based on the value of the land, then this acts like a finite elasticity of supply; it provides an incentive to reduce the value of your own land in order to avoid the tax. As I showed above, this is particularly pernicious if the market is monopolistic, but even if it is competitive the effect is still there.

One exception I can see is if there are different tiers based on broad classes of land that it’s difficult to switch between, such as “land in Manhattan” versus “land in Brooklyn” or “desert land” versus “forest land”. But even this policy would have to be done very carefully, because any opportunity to substitute can create an opportunity to pass on the tax to someone else—for instance if land taxes are lower in Brooklyn developers are going to move to Brooklyn. Maybe we want that, in which case that is a good policy; but we should be aware of these sorts of additional consequences. The simplest way to avoid all these problems is to simply make the land tax uniform. And given the quantities we’re talking about—less than $3000 per hectare per year—it should be affordable for anyone except the very large landholders we’re trying to distribute wealth from in the first place.

The good news is, most economists would probably be on board with this proposal. After all, the neoclassical models themselves say it would be more efficient than our current system of rent control and property taxes—and the idea is at least as old as Adam Smith. Perhaps we can finally change the fact that the rent is too damn high.

In honor of Pi Day, I for one welcome our new robot overlords

JDN 2457096 EDT 16:08

Despite my preference to use the Julian Date Number system, it has not escaped my attention that this weekend was Pi Day of the Century, 3/14/15. Yesterday morning we had the Moment of Pi: 3/14/15 9:26:53.58979… We arguably got an encore that evening if we allow 9:00 PM instead of 21:00.

Though perhaps it is a stereotype and/or cheesy segue, pi and associated mathematical concepts are often associated with computers and robots. Robots are an increasing part of our lives, from the industrial robots that manufacture our cars to the precision-timed satellites that provide our GPS navigation. When you want to know how to get somewhere, you pull out your pocket thinking machine and ask it to commune with the space robots who will guide you to your destination.

There are obvious upsides to these robots—they are enormously productive, and allow us to produce great quantities of useful goods at astonishingly low prices, including computers themselves, creating a positive feedback loop that has literally lowered the price of a given amount of computing power by a factor of one trillion in the latter half of the 20th century. We now very much live in the early parts of a cyberpunk future, and it is due almost entirely to the power of computer automation.

But if you know your SF you may also remember another major part of cyberpunk futures aside from their amazing technology; they also tend to be dystopias, largely because of their enormous inequality. In the cyberpunk future corporations own everything, governments are virtually irrelevant, and most individuals can barely scrape by—and that sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? This isn’t just something SF authors made up; there really are a number of ways that computer technology can exacerbate inequality and give more power to corporations.

Why? The reason that seems to get the most attention among economists is skill-biased technological change; that’s weird because it’s almost certainly the least important. The idea is that computers can automate many routine tasks (no one disputes that part) and that routine tasks tend to be the sort of thing that uneducated workers generally do more often than educated ones (already this is looking fishy; think about accountants versus artists). But educated workers are better at using computers and the computers need people to operate them (clearly true). Hence while uneducated workers are substitutes for computers—you can use the computers instead—educated workers are complements for computers—you need programmers and engineers to make the computers work. As computers get cheaper, their substitutes also get cheaper—and thus wages for uneducated workers go down. But their complements get more valuable—and so wages for educated workers go up. Thus, we get more inequality, as high wages get higher and low wages get lower.

Or, to put it more succinctly, robots are taking our jobs. Not all our jobs—actually they’re creating jobs at the top for software programmers and electrical engineers—but a lot of our jobs, like welders and metallurgists and even nurses. As the technology improves more and more jobs will be replaced by automation.

The theory seems plausible enough—and in some form is almost certainly true—but as David Card has pointed out, this fails to explain most of the actual variation in inequality in the US and other countries. Card is one of my favorite economists; he is also famous for completely revolutionizing the economics of minimum wage, showing that prevailing theory that minimum wages must hurt employment simply doesn’t match the empirical data.

If it were just that college education is getting more valuable, we’d see a rise in income for roughly the top 40%, since over 40% of American adults have at least an associate’s degree. But we don’t actually see that; in fact contrary to popular belief we don’t even really see it in the top 1%. The really huge increases in income for the last 40 years have been at the top 0.01%—the top 1% of 1%.

Many of the jobs that are now automated also haven’t seen a fall in income; despite the fact that high-frequency trading algorithms do what stockbrokers do a thousand times better (“better” at making markets more unstable and siphoning wealth from the rest of the economy that is), stockbrokers have seen no such loss in income. Indeed, they simply appropriate the additional income from those computer algorithms—which raises the question why welders couldn’t do the same thing. And indeed, I’ll get to in a moment why that is exactly what we must do, that the robot revolution must also come with a revolution in property rights and income distribution.

No, the real reasons why technology exacerbates inequality are twofold: Patent rents and the winner-takes-all effect.

In an earlier post I already talked about the winner-takes-all effect, so I’ll just briefly summarize it this time around. Under certain competitive conditions, a small fraction of individuals can reap a disproportionate share of the rewards despite being only slightly more productive than those beneath them. This often happens when we have network externalities, in which a product becomes more valuable when more people use it, thus creating a positive feedback loop that makes the products which are already successful wildly so and the products that aren’t successful resigned to obscurity.

Computer technology—more specifically, the Internet—is particularly good at creating such situations. Facebook, Google, and Amazon are all examples of companies that (1) could not exist without Internet technology and (2) depend almost entirely upon network externalities for their business model. They are the winners who take all; thousands of other software companies that were just as good or nearly so are now long forgotten. The winners are not always the same, because the system is unstable; for instance MySpace used to be much more important—and much more profitable—until Facebook came along.

But the fact that a different handful of upper-middle-class individuals can find themselves suddenly and inexplicably thrust into fame and fortune while the rest of us toil in obscurity really isn’t much comfort, now is it? While technically the rise and fall of MySpace can be called “income mobility”, it’s clearly not what we actually mean when we say we want a society with a high level of income mobility. We don’t want a society where the top 10% can by little more than chance find themselves becoming the top 0.01%; we want a society where you don’t have to be in the top 10% to live well in the first place.

Even without network externalities the Internet still nurtures winner-takes-all markets, because digital information can be copied infinitely. When it comes to sandwiches or even cars, each new one is costly to make and costly to transport; it can be more cost-effective to choose the ones that are made near you even if they are of slightly lower quality. But with books (especially e-books), video games, songs, or movies, each individual copy costs nothing to create, so why would you settle for anything but the best? This may well increase the overall quality of the content consumers get—but it also ensures that the creators of that content are in fierce winner-takes-all competition. Hence J.K. Rowling and James Cameron on the one hand, and millions of authors and independent filmmakers barely scraping by on the other. Compare a field like engineering; you probably don’t know a lot of rich and famous engineers (unless you count engineers who became CEOs like Bill Gates and Thomas Edison), but nor is there a large segment of “starving engineers” barely getting by. Though the richest engineers (CEOs excepted) are not nearly as rich as the richest authors, the typical engineer is much better off than the typical author, because engineering is not nearly as winner-takes-all.

But the main topic for today is actually patent rents. These are a greatly underappreciated segment of our economy, and they grow more important all the time. A patent rent is more or less what it sounds like; it’s the extra money you get from owning a patent on something. You can get that money either by literally renting it—charging license fees for other companies to use it—or simply by being the only company who is allowed to manufacture something, letting you sell it at monopoly prices. It’s surprisingly difficult to assess the real value of patent rents—there’s a whole literature on different econometric methods of trying to tackle this—but one thing is clear: Some of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world are built almost entirely upon patent rents. Drug companies, R&D companies, software companies—even many manufacturing companies like Boeing and GM obtain a substantial portion of their income from patents.

What is a patent? It’s a rule that says you “own” an idea, and anyone else who wants to use it has to pay you for the privilege. The very concept of owning an idea should trouble you—ideas aren’t limited in number, you can easily share them with others. But now think about the fact that most of these patents are owned by corporationsnot by inventors themselves—and you’ll realize that our system of property rights is built around the notion that an abstract entity can own an idea—that one idea can own another.

The rationale behind patents is that they are supposed to provide incentives for innovation—in exchange for investing the time and effort to invent something, you receive a certain amount of time where you get to monopolize that product so you can profit from it. But how long should we give you? And is this really the best way to incentivize innovation?

I contend it is not; when you look at the really important world-changing innovations, very few of them were done for patent rents, and virtually none of them were done by corporations. Jonas Salk was indignant at the suggestion he should patent the polio vaccine; it might have made him a billionaire, but only by letting thousands of children die. (To be fair, here’s a scholar arguing that he probably couldn’t have gotten the patent even if he wanted to—but going on to admit that even then the patent incentive had basically nothing to do with why penicillin and the polio vaccine were invented.)

Who landed on the moon? Hint: It wasn’t Microsoft. Who built the Hubble Space Telescope? Not Sony. The Internet that made Google and Facebook possible was originally invented by DARPA. Even when corporations seem to do useful innovation, it’s usually by profiting from the work of individuals: Edison’s corporation stole most of its good ideas from Nikola Tesla, and by the time the Wright Brothers founded a company their most important work was already done (though at least then you could argue that they did it in order to later become rich, which they ultimately did). Universities and nonprofits brought you the laser, light-emitting diodes, fiber optics, penicillin and the polio vaccine. Governments brought you liquid-fuel rockets, the Internet, GPS, and the microchip. Corporations brought you, uh… Viagra, the Snuggie, and Furbies. Indeed, even Google’s vaunted search algorithms were originally developed by the NSF. I can think of literally zero examples of a world-changing technology that was actually invented by a corporation in order to secure a patent. I’m hesitant to say that none exist, but clearly the vast majority of seminal inventions have been created by governments and universities.

This has always been true throughout history. Rome’s fire departments were notorious for shoddy service—and wholly privately-owned—but their great aqueducts that still stand today were built as government projects. When China invented paper, turned it into money, and defended it with the Great Wall, it was all done on government funding.

The whole idea that patents are necessary for innovation is simply a lie; and even the idea that patents lead to more innovation is quite hard to defend. Imagine if instead of letting Google and Facebook patent their technology all the money they receive in patent rents were instead turned into tax-funded research—frankly is there even any doubt that the results would be better for the future of humanity? Instead of better ad-targeting algorithms we could have had better cancer treatments, or better macroeconomic models, or better spacecraft engines.

When they feel their “intellectual property” (stop and think about that phrase for awhile, and it will begin to seem nonsensical) has been violated, corporations become indignant about “free-riding”; but who is really free-riding here? The people who copy music albums for free—because they cost nothing to copy, or the corporations who make hundreds of billions of dollars selling zero-marginal-cost products using government-invented technology over government-funded infrastructure? (Many of these companies also continue receive tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies every year.) In the immortal words of Barack Obama, “you didn’t build that!”

Strangely, most economists seem to be supportive of patents, despite the fact that their own neoclassical models point strongly in the opposite direction. There’s no logical connection between the fixed cost of inventing a technology and the monopoly rents that can be extracted from its patent. There is some connection—albeit a very weak one—between the benefits of the technology and its monopoly profits, since people are likely to be willing to pay more for more beneficial products. But most of the really great benefits are either in the form of public goods that are unenforceable even with patents (go ahead, try enforcing on that satellite telescope on everyone who benefits from its astronomical discoveries!) or else apply to people who are so needy they can’t possibly pay you (like anti-malaria drugs in Africa), so that willingness-to-pay link really doesn’t get you very far.

I guess a lot of neoclassical economists still seem to believe that willingness-to-pay is actually a good measure of utility, so maybe that’s what’s going on here; if it were, we could at least say that patents are a second-best solution to incentivizing the most important research.

But even then, why use second-best when you have best? Why not devote more of our society’s resources to governments and universities that have centuries of superior track record in innovation? When this is proposed the deadweight loss of taxation is always brought up, but somehow the deadweight loss of monopoly rents never seems to bother anyone. At least taxes can be designed to minimize deadweight loss—and democratic governments actually have incentives to do that; corporations have no interest whatsoever in minimizing the deadweight loss they create so long as their profit is maximized.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have corporations at all—they are very good at one thing and one thing only, and that is manufacturing physical goods. Cars and computers should continue to be made by corporations—but their technologies are best invented by government. Will this dramatically reduce the profits of corporations? Of course—but I have difficulty seeing that as anything but a good thing.

Why am I talking so much about patents, when I said the topic was robots? Well, it’s typically because of the way these patents are assigned that robots taking people’s jobs becomes a bad thing. The patent is owned by the company, which is owned by the shareholders; so when the company makes more money by using robots instead of workers, the workers lose.

If when a robot takes your job, you simply received the income produced by the robot as capital income, you’d probably be better off—you get paid more and you also don’t have to work. (Of course, if you define yourself by your career or can’t stand the idea of getting “handouts”, you might still be unhappy losing your job even though you still get paid for it.)

There’s a subtler problem here though; robots could have a comparative advantage without having an absolute advantage—that is, they could produce less than the workers did before, but at a much lower cost. Where it cost $5 million in wages to produce $10 million in products, it might cost only $3 million in robot maintenance to produce $9 million in products. Hence you can’t just say that we should give the extra profits to the workers; in some cases those extra profits only exist because we are no longer paying the workers.

As a society, we still want those transactions to happen, because producing less at lower cost can still make our economy more efficient and more productive than it was before. Those displaced workers can—in theory at least—go on to other jobs where they are needed more.

The problem is that this often doesn’t happen, or it takes such a long time that workers suffer in the meantime. Hence the Luddites; they don’t want to be made obsolete even if it does ultimately make the economy more productive.

But this is where patents become important. The robots were probably invented at a university, but then a corporation took them and patented them, and is now selling them to other corporations at a monopoly price. The manufacturing company that buys the robots now has to spend more in order to use the robots, which drives their profits down unless they stop paying their workers.

If instead those robots were cheap because there were no patents and we were only paying for the manufacturing costs, the workers could be shareholders in the company and the increased efficiency would allow both the employers and the workers to make more money than before.

What if we don’t want to make the workers into shareholders who can keep their shares after they leave the company? There is a real downside here, which is that once you get your shares, why stay at the company? We call that a “golden parachute” when CEOs do it, which they do all the time; but most economists are in favor of stock-based compensation for CEOs, and once again I’m having trouble seeing why it’s okay when rich people do it but not when middle-class people do.

Another alternative would be my favorite policy, the basic income: If everyone knows they can depend on a basic income, losing your job to a robot isn’t such a terrible outcome. If the basic income is designed to grow with the economy, then the increased efficiency also raises everyone’s standard of living, as economic growth is supposed to do—instead of simply increasing the income of the top 0.01% and leaving everyone else where they were. (There is a good reason not to make the basic income track economic growth too closely, namely the business cycle; you don’t want the basic income payments to fall in a recession, because that would make the recession worse. Instead they should be smoothed out over multiple years or designed to follow a nominal GDP target, so that they continue to rise even in a recession.)

We could also combine this with expanded unemployment insurance (explain to me again why you can’t collect unemployment if you weren’t working full-time before being laid off, even if you wanted to be or you’re a full-time student?) and active labor market policies that help people re-train and find new and better jobs. These policies also help people who are displaced for reasons other than robots making their jobs obsolete—obviously there are all sorts of market conditions that can lead to people losing their jobs, and many of these we actually want to happen, because they involve reallocating the resources of our society to more efficient ends.

Why aren’t these sorts of policies on the table? I think it’s largely because we don’t think of it in terms of distributing goods—we think of it in terms of paying for labor. Since the worker is no longer laboring, why pay them?

This sounds reasonable at first, but consider this: Why give that money to the shareholder? What did they do to earn it? All they do is own a piece of the company. They may not have contributed to the goods at all. Honestly, on a pay-for-work basis, we should be paying the robot!

If it bothers you that the worker collects dividends even when he’s not working—why doesn’t it bother you that shareholders do exactly the same thing? By definition, a shareholder is paid according to what they own, not what they do. All this reform would do is make workers into owners.

If you justify the shareholder’s wealth by his past labor, again you can do exactly the same to justify worker shares. (And as I said above, if you’re worried about the moral hazard of workers collecting shares and leaving, you should worry just as much about golden parachutes.)

You can even justify a basic income this way: You paid taxes so that you could live in a society that would protect you from losing your livelihood—and if you’re just starting out, your parents paid those taxes and you will soon enough. Theoretically there could be “welfare queens” who live their whole lives on the basic income, but empirical data shows that very few people actually want to do this, and when given opportunities most people try to find work. Indeed, even those who don’t, rarely seem to be motivated by greed (even though, capitalists tell us, “greed is good”); instead they seem to be de-motivated by learned helplessness after trying and failing for so long. They don’t actually want to sit on the couch all day and collect welfare payments; they simply don’t see how they can compete in the modern economy well enough to actually make a living from work.

One thing is certain: We need to detach income from labor. As a society we need to get over the idea that a human being’s worth is decided by the amount of work they do for corporations. We need to get over the idea that our purpose in life is a job, a career, in which our lives are defined by the work we do that can be neatly monetized. (I admit, I suffer from the same cultural blindness at times, feeling like a failure because I can’t secure the high-paying and prestigious employment I want. I feel this clear sense that my society does not value me because I am not making money, and it damages my ability to value myself.)

As robots do more and more of our work, we will need to redefine the way we live by something else, like play, or creativity, or love, or compassion. We will need to learn to see ourselves as valuable even if nothing we do ever sells for a penny to anyone else.

A basic income can help us do that; it can redefine our sense of what it means to earn money. Instead of the default being that you receive nothing because you are worthless unless you work, the default is that you receive enough to live on because you are a human being of dignity and a citizen. This is already the experience of people who have substantial amounts of capital income; they can fall back on their dividends if they ever can’t or don’t want to find employment. A basic income would turn us all into capital owners, shareholders in the centuries of established capital that has been built by our forebears in the form of roads, schools, factories, research labs, cars, airplanes, satellites, and yes—robots.