Just how rich is rich?

May 26 JDN 2458630

I think if there is one single thing I would like more people to know about economics, it is the sheer magnitude of global inequality. Most people seem to have no idea just how rich some people are—and how poor so many others are. They have a vision in their head of what “rich” and “poor” are, and their “rich” is a low-level Wall Street trader making $400,000 a year (the kind of people Gordon Gekko mocks in the film), and “poor” is someone who lives under a bridge in New York City. (They’re both New Yorkers, I guess. New Yorkers seem to be the iconic Americans, which is honestly more representative than you might think—80% of Americans live in urban or suburban areas.)

If we take a global perspective, this is not what “rich” and “poor” truly mean.

In next week’s post I’ll talk about what “poor” means. It’s really appallingly bad. We have to leave the First World in order to find it; many people here are poor, but not that poor. It’s so bad that I think once you really understand it, it can’t but change your whole outlook on the world. But I’m saving that for next week.

This week, I’ll talk about what “rich” really means in today’s world. We needn’t leave the United States, for the top 3 and 6 of the top 10 richest people in the world live here. And they are all White men, by the way, though Carlos Slim and Amancio Ortega are at least Latino.

Going down the list of billionaires ranked by wealth, you have to get down to 15th place before encountering a woman, and it’s really worse than that, because Francoise Bettencourt (15), Alice Walton (17), Jacqueline Mars (33), Yang Huiyan (42), Susan Klatton (46), Laurena Powell-Jobs (54), Abigail Johnson (71), and Iris Fontbona (74) are all heirs. The richest living woman who didn’t simply inherit from her father or husband is actually Gina Rinehart, the 75th richest person in the world. (And note that, while also in some sense an heir, Queen Elizabeth is not on that list; in fact, she’s nowhere near the richest people in the world. She’s not in the top 500.)

You have to get to 20th place before encountering someone non-White (Ma Huateng), and all the way down to 65th before encountering someone not White or East Asian (the Hinduja brothers). Not one of the top 100 richest people is Black.

Just how rich are these people? Well, there’s a meme going around saying that Jeff Bezos could afford to buy every homeless person in the world a house at median market price and still, with just what’s left over, be a multi-billionaire among the top 100 richest people in the world.

And that meme is completely correct. The math checks out.

There are about 554,000 homeless people in the US at any given time.

The median sale price of a currently existing house in the US is about $253,000.

Multiply those two numbers together, and you get $140 billion.

And Jeff Bezos has net wealth of $157 billion.

This means that he would still have $17 billion left after buying all those houses. The 100th richest person in the world has $13 billion, so Jeff Bezos would still be higher than that.

Even $17 billion is enough to spend over $2 million every single day—over $20 per second—and never run out of money as long as the dividends keep paying out.

Jeff Bezos in fact made so much in dividends and capital gains this past quarter that he was taking in as much money as the median Amazon employee’s annual salary—which is more than what I make as a grad student, and only slightly less than the median US individual incomeevery nine seconds. Yes, you read that correctly: Nine (9) seconds. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, Jeff Bezos probably received more in capital gains than you will make this whole year. And if not (because you’re relatively rich or you read quickly), I’m sure he will have in the time it takes you to read this whole post.

When Mitt Romney ran for President, a great deal was made of his net wealth of over $250 million. This is indeed very rich, richer than anyone really needs or probably deserves. But compared to the world’s richest, this is pocket change. Jeff Bezos gets that much in dividends and capital gains every day. Bill Gates could give away that much every day for a year and still not run out of money. (He doesn’t quite give that much, but he does give a lot.)

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor is a medium-sized city of about 120,000 people (230th in the US by population), and relatively well-off (median household income about 16% higher than the US median). Nevertheless, if Jeff Bezos wanted to, he could give every single person in Ann Arbor the equivalent of 30 years of their income—over a million dollars each—and still have enough money left to be among the world’s 100 richest people.

Or suppose instead that all the world’s 500 richest people decided to give away all the money they have above $1 billion—so they’d all still be billionaires, but only barely. That $8.7 trillion they have together, minus the $500 billion they’re keeping, would be $8.2 trillion. In fact, let’s say they keep a little more, just to make sure they all have the same ordering: Give each one an extra $1 million for each point they are in the ranking, so that Jeff Bezos would stay on top at $1 B + 500 ($0.001 B) = $1.5 billion, while Bill Gates in second place would have $1 million less, and so on. That would leave us with still over $8 trillion to give away.

How far could that $8 trillion go? Well, suppose we divided it evenly between all 328 million people in the United States. How much would each person receive? Oh, just about $24,000—basically my annual income.

Or suppose instead we spread it out over the entire world: Every single man, woman, and child on the planet Earth gets an equal share. There are 7.7 billion people in the world, so by spreading out $8 trillion between them, each one would get over $1000. For you or I that’s a big enough windfall to feel. For the world’s poorest people, it’s more than they make in several years. It would be life-changing for them. (Actually that’s about what GiveDirectly gives each family—and it is life-changing.)

And let me remind you: This would be leaving them billionaires. They’re just not as much billionaires as before—they only have $1 billion instead of $20 billion or $50 billion or $100 billion. And even $1 billion is obviously enough to live however you want, wherever you want, for the rest of your life, never working another day if you don’t want to. With $1 billion, you can fly in jets (a good one will set you back $20 million), sail in yachts (even a massive 200-footer wouldn’t run much above $200 million), and eat filet mignon at every meal (in fact, at $25 per pound, you can serve it to yourself and a hundred of your friends without breaking a sweat). You can decorate your bedroom with original Jackson Pollock paintings (at $200 million, his most expensive painting is only 20% of your wealth) and bathe in bottles of Dom Perignon (at $400 per liter, a 200-liter bath would cost you about $80,000—even every day that’s only $30 million a year, or maybe half to a third of your capital income). Remember, this is all feasible at just $1 billion—and Jeff Bezos has over a hundred times that. There is no real lifestyle improvement that happens between $1 billion and $157 billion; it’s purely a matter of status and power.

Taking enough to make them mere millionaires would give us another $0.5 trillion to spend (about the GDP of Sweden, one-fourth the GDP of Canada, or 70% of the US military budget).

Do you think maybe these people have too much money?

I’m not saying that we should confiscate all private property. I’m not saying that we should collectivize all industry. I believe in free markets and private enterprise. People should be able to get rich by inventing things and starting businesses.

But should they be able to get that rich? So rich that one man could pay off every mortgage in a whole major city? So rich that the CEO of a company makes what his employees make in a year in less than a minute? So rich that 500 people—enough to fill a large lecture hall—own enough wealth that if it were spread out evenly they could give $1000 to every single person in the world?

If Jeff Bezos had $1.5 million, I’d say he absolutely earned it. Some high-level programmers at Amazon have that much, and they absolutely earned it. If he had $15 million, I’d think maybe he could deserve that, given his contribution to the world. If he had $150 million, I’d find it hard to believe that anyone could really deserve that much, but if it’s part of what we need to make capitalism work, I could live with that.

But Jeff Bezos doesn’t have $1.5 million. He doesn’t have $15 million. He doesn’t have $150 million. He doesn’t have $1.5 billion. He doesn’t even have $15 billion. He has $150 billion. He has over a thousand times the level of wealth at which I was already having to doubt whether any human being could possibly deserve so much money—and once it gets that big, it basically just keeps growing. A stock market crash might drop it down temporarily, but it would come back in a few years.

And it’s not like there’s nothing we could do to spread this wealth around. Some fairly simple changes in how we tax dividends and capital gains would be enough to get a lot of it, and a wealth tax like the one Elizabeth Warren has proposed would help a great deal as well. At the rates people have seriously proposed, these taxes would only really stop their wealth from growing; it wouldn’t meaningfully shrink it.

That could be combined with policy changes about compensation for corporate executives, particularly with regard to stock options, to make it harder to extract such a large proportion of a huge multinational corporation’s wealth into a single individual. We could impose a cap on the ratio between median employee salary (including the entire supply chain!) and total executive compensation (including dividends and capital gains!), say 100 to 1. (Making in 9 seconds what his employees make in a year, Jeff Bezos is currently operating at a ratio of over 3 million to 1.) If you exceed the cap, the remainder is taxed at 100%. This would mean that as a CEO you can still make $100 million a year, but only if your median employee makes $1 million. If your median employee makes $30,000, you’d better keep your own compensation under $3 million, because we’re gonna take the rest.

Is this socialism? I guess maybe it’s democratic socialism, the high-tax, high-spend #ScandinaviaIsBetter welfare state. But it would not be an end to free markets or free enterprise. We’re not collectivizing any industries, let alone putting anyone in guillotines. You could still start a business and make millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars; you’d simply be expected to share that wealth with your employees and our society as a whole, instead of hoarding it all for yourself.

For labor day, thoughts on socialism

Planned Post 255: Sep 9 JDN 2458371

This week includes Labor Day, the holiday where we are perhaps best justified in taking the whole day off from work and doing nothing. Labor Day is sort of the moderate social democratic counterpart to the explicitly socialist holiday May Day.

The right wing in this country has done everything in their power to expand the definition of “socialism”, which is probably why most young people now have positive views of socialism. There was a time when FDR was seen as an alternative to socialism; but now I’m pretty sure he’d just be called a socialist.

Because of this, I am honestly not sure whether I should be considered a socialist. I definitely believe in the social democratic welfare state epitomized by Scandinavia, but I definitely don’t believe in total collectivization of all means of production.

I am increasingly convinced that shareholder capitalism is a terrible system (the renowned science fiction author Charles Stross actually gave an excellent talk on this subject), but I would not want to abandon free markets.
The best answer might be worker-owned cooperatives. The empirical data is actually quite consistent in showing worker co-ops to be as efficient if not more efficient than conventional corporations, and by construction their pay systems produce less inequality than corporations.

Indeed, I think there is reason to believe that a worker co-op is a much more natural outcome for free markets under a level playing field than a conventional corporation, and the main reason we have corporations is actually that capitalism arose out of (and in response to) feudalism.

Think about it: Why should most things be owned by the top 1%? (Okay, not quite “most”: to be fair, the top 1% only owns 40% of all US net wealth.) Why is 80% of the value of the stock market held by the top 10% of the population?

Most things aren’t done by the top 1%. There are a handful of individuals (namely, scientists who make seminal breakthroughs: Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Rosalind Franklin, Alan Turing, Jonas Salk) who are so super-productive that they might conceivably deserve billionaire-level compensation—but they are almost never the ones who are actually billionaires. If markets were really distributing capital to those who would use it most productively, there’s no reason to think that inequality would be so self-sustaining—much less self-enhancing as it currently seems to be.

But when you realize that capitalism emerged out of a system where the top 1% (or less) already owned most things, and did so by a combination of “divine right” ideology and direct, explicit violence, this inequality becomes a lot less baffling. We never had a free market on a level playing field. The closest we’ve ever gotten has always been through social-democratic reforms (like the New Deal and Scandinavia).

How does this result in corporations? Well, when all the wealth is held by a small fraction of individuals, how do you start a business? You have to borrow money from the people who have it. Borrowing makes you beholden to your creditors, and puts you at great risk if your venture fails (especially back in the days when there were debtor’s prisons—and we’re starting to go back that direction!). Equity provides an alternative: In exchange for giving them the downside risk if your venture fails, you also give your creditors—now shareholders—the upside risk if your venture succeeds. But at the end of the day when your business has succeeded, where did most of the profits go? Into the hands of the people who already had money to begin with, who did nothing to actually contribute to society. The world would be better off if those people had never existed and their wealth had simply been shared with everyone else.

Compare this to what would happen if we all started with similar levels of wealth. (How much would each of us have? Total US wealth of about $44 trillion, spread among a population of 328 million, is about $130,000 each. I don’t know about you, but I think I could do quite a bit with that.) When starting a business, you wouldn’t go heavily into debt or sign away ownership of your company to some billionaire; you’d gather a group of dedicated partners, each of whom would contribute money and effort into building the business. As you added on new workers, it would make sense to pool their assets, and give them a share of the company as well. The natural structure for your business would be not a shareholder corporation, but a worker-owned cooperative.

I think on some level the super-rich actually understand this. If you look closely at the sort of policies they fight for, they really aren’t capitalist. They don’t believe in free, unfettered markets where competition reigns. They believe in monopoly, lobbying, corruption, nepotism, and above all, low taxes. (There’s actually nothing in the basic principles of capitalism that says taxes should be low. Taxes should be as high as they need to be to cover public goods—no higher, and no lower.) They don’t want to provide nationalized healthcare, not because they believe that private healthcare competition is more efficient (no one who looks at the data for even a few minutes can honestly believe that—US healthcare is by far the most expensive in the world), but because they know that it would give their employees too much freedom to quit and work elsewhere. Donald Trump doesn’t want a world where any college kid with a brilliant idea and a lot of luck can overthrow his empire; he wants a world where everyone owes him and his family personal favors that he can call in to humiliate them and exert his power. That’s not capitalism—it’s feudalism.

Crowdfunding also provides an interesting alternative; we might even call it the customer-owned cooperative. Kickstarter and Patreon provide a very interesting new economic model—still entirely within the realm of free markets—where customers directly fund production and interact with producers to decide what will be produced. This might turn out to be even more efficient—and notice that it would run a lot more smoothly if we had all started with a level playing field.

Establishing such a playing field, of course, requires a large amount of redistribution of wealth. Is this socialism? If you insist. But I think it’s more accurate to describe it as reparations for feudalism (not to mention colonialism). We aren’t redistributing what was fairly earned in free markets; we are redistributing what was stolen, so that from now on, wealth can be fairly earned in free markets.

Why is redistribution of wealth so difficult to achieve in the US?

Jan 28 JDN 2458147

Income and wealth in equality is much higher in the US than in other First World countries. Within the OECD, only Mexico, Turkey, and Chile have higher income inequality than we do. Over 60% of Americans agree that the distribution of wealth in the US is unfair. Furthermore, the majority of Americans support the use of taxes and transfers to directly redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

Why, then, is it so hard to actually get any meaningful wealth redistribution in the United States?

Part of it is surely partisan differences: While about 70% of Democrats favor redistributive taxes, about 70% of Republicans oppose them. So one would not expect a move toward redistribution when Republicans control all three branches of government, and indeed we have seen quite the opposite. (Then again, one would also not expect a government shutdown under one-party rule, and yet that is what we have.)

But even most Republicans say they would like to see a much more equal distribution of wealth than the one we actually have. In fact, when I as an inequality economist look at the distribution of wealth people say they want, it looks a little too equal! Even Denmark and Sweden aren’t that egalitarian! I know more or less how to get from here to Denmark; but from here to “Equalden” looks like an awful long way. So if this is really the distribution of wealth people want, we need to be doing a huge amount of wealth redistribution—but we’re hardly doing any at all.

Indeed, we didn’t actually see all that much redistribution of wealth when Democrats more or less controlled all three branches in the period from 2008-2010. We may have seen a little bit shortly thereafter, and tax policy typically does come with a delay of a year or two. But as you can see in this graph, the Great Recession did more to reduce the top 1% income share than any tax policy changes:

US_top_income_share_1pct

The biggest changes made to our tax code under Obama were actually the handling of capital gains; the increase of the top rate on capital gains from 15% to 20%, plus the 3.8% capital surtax from the Affordable Care Act raised the tax bill for the top 0.1% by tens of billions of dollars. Surprisingly, Trump’s tax cuts don’t actually remove these provisions, though they did dramatically cut the corporate tax rate, which will probably have a similar effect on the income distribution.

To be honest, I’m not as disappointed with Trump’s tax cuts as I thought I would be. Some genuinely good ideas (like the reduction of the mortgage interest deduction, tighter restrictions on carried interest, and increase of the personal standard deduction) and some reasonable but debatable ideas (like cuts to the corporate tax rate, switching to a territorial corporate tax system, limits to deductions on corporate debt payments, removal of the deduction of state taxes, and extensions of 529 savings plans to private primary and secondary schools) were mixed in with the absolutely ludicrous and terrible ideas (like eliminating the Obamacare mandate, doubling the estate tax threshold, cutting the alcohol tax, and allowing offshore drilling in Alaska [One of these things is not like the other ones….]). Some of the terrible ideas, like ending the deduction of student loan interest and tuition waivers, were actually removed in the final version of the bill. Of course, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that the overall US tax system became a lot less progressive as a result of this bill. And even if cutting the corporate tax while raising the capital gains tax is probably a good idea (as I and many economists believe), cutting the corporate tax without raising the capital gains tax probably isn’t.

(An aside: For how much they claim to be “tough on crime”, it’s always kind of baffling to see how often Republicans like to cut alcohol taxes and pollution regulations, which are pretty much the only things that have ever been empirically shown to actually reduce crime. There is some evidence that maybe more policing also helps, but if so, it does so in a far less cost-effective way—indeed, the direct cost of alcohol taxes and pollution taxes is negative. Even if they didn’t work at all, they’d still be worth it just because they raise revenue. I begin to suspect that Republicans don’t actually want to reduce crime, because they know they can use the fear of crime to win votes; they simply want to appear tough on crime, and so they press as hard as they can for more policing and incarceration in the country that already has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This may be a more general phenomenon: While Democrats want to actually solve problems, Republicans want to appear to solve problems while actually exacerbating them, thus insuring their own job security. Compare how Bush kept talking about Osama bin laden while invading Iraq, and Obama actually killed Osama bin Laden. Is this too cynical? Can anything be too cynical in the era of Trump? There were 50,000 Russian bots on Twitter trying to tilt our election! Mueller’s FBI investigation is already implicating several of Trump’s top officials! Everything that seemed like paranoia or cynicism just a few years ago is turning out to be entirely true.)

This is what seems to happen: Year after year, we raise some taxes, then we cut some taxes. Then when raise some taxes, then we cut some taxes. The tax system gets a little more progressive for a few years and inequality begins to fall, and then those changes are removed and inequality begins to rise again. Back and forth and round and round we go.

Is there some way to lock in these tax changes for a longer period of time? The only way I can see would be a change in voter behavior: Keep voting in Democrats to all branches of government consistently for 20 years, and then maybe we would see a serious reduction in income and wealth inequality. Or at least stop voting in Republicans; aside from the Democrats, there are some third parties that would also support redistribution, like the Green Party. And yes, it really is about voting behavior: As prevalent as gerrymandering has become, as terrible as the Electoral College is, as widespread as voter suppression has gotten, Trump only won because 63 million Americans voted for him. Even after everything he’s done, Trumps’ approval rating is still about 39%. As long as there are enough people in this country whose partisan loyalty so strongly outweighs any rational assessment of policy, we are going to continue to see such travesties continue.

It would certainly help if our voting system were fairer, so that third parties had a better chance at taking seats. But it’s also difficult to see how that could happen any time soon. For now, the best I can come up with is trying to show people two things:

First, most Americans favor redistribution of wealth. You’re not alone in wanting that. It’s not some fringe opinion.

Second, there is a real difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. The canard “The two parties are the same” is the most untrue it has been in at least twenty years.

I would even understand if there are other issues you consider more important than wealth redistribution. Ecological sustainability is the most defensible—you can’t eat GNP—though that would push you even harder toward the left. Among things that might push you right, I can understand being concerned about higher taxes hurting economic growth, and while I think the view that abortion is murder is ludicrous, given that as your belief I can understand why you would want to prioritize fighting abortion. (If I thought we were murdering millions of babies every year, I’d be pretty mad too! Of course, you should be glad, then, that the US abortion rate has been falling. Right? You know about that, right?)

What I don’t get, however, is people who thought that voting for Donald Trump would help working people. I don’t understand how you can see someone who epitomizes everything that is wrong with the billionaire rentier class and think, “Yeah, he seems like he’s definitely a populist. That guy who was born insanely rich and made even more mind-boggling amounts of money by lying and screwing people over is definitely going to look out for folks like me.”

If I understood that, maybe I would know where to go from here. But people’s political beliefs can be astonishingly intransigent to evidence. Politics is the mind-killer.

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.

Think of this as a moral recession

August 27, JDN 2457993

The Great Depression was, without doubt, the worst macroeconomic event of the last 200 years. Over 30 million people became unemployed. Unemployment exceeded 20%. Standard of living fell by as much as a third in the United States. Political unrest spread across the world, and the collapsing government of Germany ultimately became the Third Reich and triggered the Second World War If we ignore the world war, however, the effect on mortality rates was surprisingly small. (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”)

And yet, how long do you suppose it took for economic growth to repair the damage? 80 years? 50 years? 30 years? 20 years? Try ten to fifteen. By 1940, the US, US, Germany, and Japan all had a per-capita GDP at least as high as in 1930. By 1945, every country in Europe had a per-capita GDP at least as high as they did before the Great Depression.

The moral of this story is this: Recessions are bad, and can have far-reaching consequences; but ultimately what really matters in the long run is growth.

Assuming the same growth otherwise, a country that had a recession as large as the Great Depression would be about 70% as rich as one that didn’t.

But over 100 years, a country that experienced 3% growth instead of 2% growth would be over two and a half times richer.

Therefore, in terms of standard of living only, if you were given the choice between having a Great Depression but otherwise growing at 3%, and having no recessions but growing at 2%, your grandchildren will be better off if you chose the former. (Of course, given the possibility of political unrest or even war, the depression could very well end up worse.)

With that in mind, I want you to think of the last few years—and especially the last few months—as a moral recession. Donald Trump being President of the United States is clearly a step backward for human civilization, and it seems to have breathed new life into some of the worst ideologies our society has ever harbored, from extreme misogyny, homophobia, right-wing nationalism, and White supremacism to outright Neo-Nazism. When one of the central debates in our public discourse is what level of violence is justifiable against Nazis under what circumstances, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

But much as recessions are overwhelmed in the long run by economic growth, there is reason to be confident that this moral backslide is temporary and will be similarly overwhelmed by humanity’s long-run moral progress.

What moral progress, you ask? Let’s remind ourselves.

Just 100 years ago, women could not vote in the United States.

160 years ago, slavery was legal in 15 US states.

Just 3 years ago, same-sex marriage was illegal in 14 US states. Yes, you read that number correctly. I said three. There are gay couples graduating high school and getting married now who as freshmen didn’t think they would be allowed to get married.

That’s just the United States. What about the rest of the world?

100 years ago, almost all of the world’s countries were dictatorships. Today, half of the world’s countries are democracies. Indeed, thanks to India, the majority of the world’s population now lives under democracy.

35 years ago, the Soviet Union still ruled most of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia with an iron fist (or should I say “curtain”?).

30 years ago, the number of human beings in extreme poverty—note I said number, not just rate; the world population was two-thirds what it is today—was twice as large as it is today.

Over the last 65 years, the global death rate due to war has fallen from 250 per million to just 10 per million.

The global literacy rate has risen from 40% to 80% in just 50 years.

World life expectancy has increased by 6 years in just the last 20 years.

We are living in a golden age. Do not forget that.

Indeed, if there is anything that could destroy all these astonishing achievements, I think it would be our failure to appreciate them.

If you listen to what these Neo-Nazi White supremacists say about their grievances, they sound like the spoiled children of millionaires (I mean, they elected one President, after all). They are outraged because they only get 90% of what they want instead of 100%—or even outraged not because they didn’t get what they wanted but because someone else they don’t know also did.

If you listen to the far left, their complaints don’t make much more sense. If you didn’t actually know any statistics, you’d think that life is just as bad for Black people in America today as it was under Jim Crow or even slavery. Well, it’s not even close. I’m not saying racism is gone; it’s definitely still here. But the civil rights movement has made absolutely enormous strides, from banning school segregation and housing redlining to reforming prison sentences and instituting affirmative action programs. Simply the fact that “racist” is now widely considered a terrible thing to be is a major accomplishment in itself. A typical Black person today, despite having only about 60% of the income of a typical White person, is still richer than a typical White person was just 50 years ago. While the 71% high school completion rate Black people currently have may not sound great, it’s much higher than the 50% rate that the whole US population had as recently as 1950.

Yes, there are some things that aren’t going very well right now. The two that I think are most important are climate change and income inequality. As both the global mean temperature anomaly and the world top 1% income share continue to rise, millions of people will suffer and die needlessly from diseases of poverty and natural disasters.

And of course if Neo-Nazis manage to take hold of the US government and try to repeat the Third Reich, that could be literally the worst thing that ever happened. If it triggered a nuclear war, it unquestionably would be literally the worst thing that ever happened. Both these events are unlikely—but not nearly as unlikely as they should be. (Five Thirty Eight interviewed several nuclear experts who estimated a probability of imminent nuclear war at a horrifying five percent.) So I certainly don’t want to make anyone complacent about these very grave problems.

But I worry also that we go too far the other direction, and fail to celebrate the truly amazing progress humanity has made thus far. We hear so often that we are treading water, getting nowhere, or even falling backward, that we begin to feel as though the fight for moral progress is utterly hopeless. If all these centuries of fighting for justice really had gotten us nowhere, the only sensible thing to do at this point would be to give up. But on the contrary, we have made enormous progress in an incredibly short period of time. We are on the verge of finally winning this fight. The last thing we want to do now is give up.

The right (and wrong) way to buy stocks

July 9, JDN 2457944

Most people don’t buy stocks at all. Stock equity is the quintessential form of financial wealth, and 42% of financial net wealth in the United States is held by the top 1%, while the bottom 80% owns essentially none.

Half of American households do not have any private retirement savings at all, and are depending either on employee pensions or Social Security for their retirement plans.

This is not necessarily irrational. In order to save for retirement, one must first have sufficient income to live on. Indeed, I got very annoyed at a “financial planning seminar” for grad students I attended recently, trying to scare us about the fact that almost none of us had any meaningful retirement savings. No, we shouldn’t have meaningful retirement savings, because our income is currently much lower than what we can expect to get once we graduate and enter our professions. It doesn’t make sense for someone scraping by on a $20,000 per year graduate student stipend to be saving up for retirement, when they can quite reasonably expect to be making $70,000-$100,000 per year once they finally get that PhD and become a professional economist (or sociologist, or psychologist or physicist or statistician or political scientist or material, mechanical, chemical, or aerospace engineer, or college professor in general, etc.). Even social workers, historians, and archaeologists make a lot more money than grad students. If you are already in the workforce and only expect to be getting small raises in the future, maybe you should start saving for retirement in your 20s. If you’re a grad student, don’t bother. It’ll be a lot easier to save once your income triples after graduation. (Personally, I keep about $700 in stocks mostly to get a feel for what it is like owning and trading stocks that I will apply later, not out of any serious expectation to support a retirement fund. Even at Warren Buffet-level returns I wouldn’t make more than $200 a year this way.)

Total US retirement savings are over $25 trillion, which… does actually sound low to me. In a country with a GDP now over $19 trillion, that means we’ve only saved a year and change of total income. If we had a rapidly growing population this might be fine, but we don’t; our population is fairly stable. People seem to be relying on economic growth to provide for their retirement, and since we are almost certainly at steady-state capital stock and fairly near full employment, that means waiting for technological advancement.

So basically people are hoping that we get to the Wall-E future where the robots will provide for us. And hey, maybe we will; but assuming that we haven’t abandoned capitalism by then (as they certainly haven’t in Wall-E), maybe you should try to make sure you own some assets to pay for robots with?

But okay, let’s set all that aside, and say you do actually want to save for retirement. How should you go about doing it?

Stocks are clearly the way to go. A certain proportion of government bonds also makes sense as a hedge against risk, and maybe you should even throw in the occasional commodity future. I wouldn’t recommend oil or coal at this point—either we do something about climate change and those prices plummet, or we don’t and we’ve got bigger problems—but it’s hard to go wrong with corn or steel, and for this one purpose it also can make sense to buy gold as well. Gold is not a magical panacea or the foundation of all wealth, but its price does tend to correlate negatively with stock returns, so it’s not a bad risk hedge.

Don’t buy exotic derivatives unless you really know what you’re doing—they can make a lot of money, but they can lose it just as fast—and never buy non-portfolio assets as a financial investment. If your goal is to buy something to make money, make it something you can trade at the click of a button. Buy a house because you want to live in that house. Buy wine because you like drinking wine. Don’t buy a house in the hopes of making a financial return—you’ll have leveraged your entire portfolio 10 to 1 while leaving it completely undiversified. And the problem with investing in wine, ironically, is its lack of liquidity.

The core of your investment portfolio should definitely be stocks. The biggest reason for this is the equity premium; equities—that is, stocks—get returns so much higher than other assets that it’s actually baffling to most economists. Bond returns are currently terrible, while stock returns are currently fantastic. The former is currently near 0% in inflation-adjusted terms, while the latter is closer to 16%. If this continues for the next 10 years, that means that $1000 put in bonds would be worth… $1000, while $1000 put in stocks would be worth $4400. So, do you want to keep the same amount of money, or quadruple your money? It’s up to you.

Higher risk is generally associated with higher return, because rational investors will only accept additional risk when they get some additional benefit from it; and stocks are indeed riskier than most other assets, but not that much riskier. For this to be rational, people would need to be extremely risk-averse, to the point where they should never drive a car or eat a cheeseburger. (Of course, human beings are terrible at assessing risk, so what I really think is going on is that people wildly underestimate the risk of driving a car and wildly overestimate the risk of buying stocks.)

Next, you may be asking: How does one buy stocks? This doesn’t seem to be something people teach in school.

You will need a brokerage of some sort. There are many such brokerages, but they are basically all equivalent except for the fees they charge. Some of them will try to offer you various bells and whistles to justify whatever additional cut they get of your trades, but they are almost never worth it. You should choose one that has a low a trade fee as possible, because even a few dollars here and there can add up surprisingly quickly.

Fortunately, there is now at least one well-established reliable stock brokerage available to almost anyone that has a standard trade fee of zero. They are called Robinhood, and I highly recommend them. If they have any downside, it is ironically that they make trading too easy, so you can be tempted to do it too often. Learn to resist that urge, and they will serve you well and cost you nothing.

Now, which stocks should you buy? There are a lot of them out there. The answer I’m going to give may sound strange: All of them. You should buy all the stocks.

All of them? How can you buy all of them? Wouldn’t that be ludicrously expensive?

No, it’s quite affordable in fact. In my little $700 portfolio, I own every single stock in the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ. If I get a little extra money to save, I may expand to own every stock in Europe and China as well.

How? A clever little arrangement called an exchange-traded fund, or ETF for short. An ETF is actually a form of mutual fund, where the fund purchases shares in a huge array of stocks, and adjusts what they own to precisely track the behavior of an entire stock market (such as the S&P 500). Then what you can buy is shares in that mutual fund, which are usually priced somewhere between $100 and $300 each. As the price of stocks in the market rises, the price of shares in the mutual fund rises to match, and you can reap the same capital gains they do.

A major advantage of this arrangement, especially for a typical person who isn’t well-versed in stock markets, is that it requires almost no attention at your end. You can buy into a few ETFs and then leave your money to sit there, knowing that it will grow as long as the overall stock market grows.

But there is an even more important advantage, which is that it maximizes your diversification. I said earlier that you shouldn’t buy a house as an investment, because it’s not at all diversified. What I mean by this is that the price of that house depends only on one thing—that house itself. If the price of that house changes, the full change is reflected immediately in the value of your asset. In fact, if you have 10% down on a mortgage, the full change is reflected ten times over in your net wealth, because you are leveraged 10 to 1.

An ETF is basically the opposite of that. Instead of its price depending on only one thing, it depends on a vast array of things, averaging over the prices of literally hundreds or thousands of different corporations. When some fall, others will rise. On average, as long as the economy continues to grow, they will rise.

The result is that you can get the same average return you would from owning stocks, while dramatically reducing the risk you bear.

To see how this works, consider the past year’s performance of Apple (AAPL), which has done very well, versus Fitbit (FIT), which has done very poorly, compared with the NASDAQ as a whole, of which they are both part.

AAPL has grown over 50% (40 log points) in the last year; so if you’d bought $1000 of their stock a year ago it would be worth $1500. FIT has fallen over 60% (84 log points) in the same time, so if you’d bought $1000 of their stock instead, it would be worth only $400. That’s the risk you’re taking by buying individual stocks.

Whereas, if you had simply bought a NASDAQ ETF a year ago, your return would be 35%, so that $1000 would be worth $1350.

Of course, that does mean you don’t get as high a return as you would if you had managed to choose the highest-performing stock on that index. But you’re unlikely to be able to do that, as even professional financial forecasters are worse than random chance. So, would you rather take a 50-50 shot between gaining $500 and losing $600, or would you prefer a guaranteed $350?

If higher return is not your only goal, and you want to be socially responsible in your investments, there are ETFs for that too. Instead of buying the whole stock market, these funds buy only a section of the market that is associated with some social benefit, such as lower carbon emissions or better representation of women in management. On average, you can expect a slightly lower return this way; but you are also helping to make a better world. And still your average return is generally going to be better than it would be if you tried to pick individual stocks yourself. In fact, certain classes of socially-responsible funds—particularly green tech and women’s representation—actually perform better than conventional ETFs, probably because most investors undervalue renewable energy and, well, also undervalue women. Women CEOs perform better at lower prices; why would you not want to buy their companies?

In fact ETFs are not literally guaranteed—the market as a whole does move up and down, so it is possible to lose money even by buying ETFs. But because the risk is so much lower, your odds of losing money are considerably reduced. And on average, an ETF will, by construction, perform exactly as well as the average performance of a randomly-chosen stock from that market.

Indeed, I am quite convinced that most people don’t take enough risk on their investment portfolios, because they confuse two very different types of risk.

The kind you should be worried about is idiosyncratic risk, which is risk tied to a particular investment—the risk of having chosen the Fitbit instead of Apple. But a lot of the time people seem to be avoiding market risk, which is the risk tied to changes in the market as a whole. Avoiding market risk does reduce your chances of losing money, but it does so at the cost of reducing your chances of making money even more.

Idiosyncratic risk is basically all downside. Yeah, you could get lucky; but you could just as well get unlucky. Far better if you could somehow average over that risk and get the average return. But with diversification, that is exactly what you can do. Then you are left only with market risk, which is the kind of risk that is directly tied to higher average returns.

Young people should especially be willing to take more risk in their portfolios. As you get closer to retirement, it becomes important to have more certainty about how much money will really be available to you once you retire. But if retirement is still 30 years away, the thing you should care most about is maximizing your average return. That means taking on a lot of market risk, which is then less risky overall if you diversify away the idiosyncratic risk.

I hope now that I have convinced you to avoid buying individual stocks. For most people most of the time, this is the advice you need to hear. Don’t try to forecast the market, don’t try to outperform the indexes; just buy and hold some ETFs and leave your money alone to grow.

But if you really must buy individual stocks, either because you think you are savvy enough to beat the forecasters or because you enjoy the gamble, here’s some additional advice I have for you.

My first piece of advice is that you should still buy ETFs. Even if you’re willing to risk some of your wealth on greater gambles, don’t risk all of it that way.

My second piece of advice is to buy primarily large, well-established companies (like Apple or Microsoft or Ford or General Electric). Their stocks certainly do rise and fall, but they are unlikely to completely crash and burn the way that young companies like Fitbit can.

My third piece of advice is to watch the price-earnings ratio (P/E for short). Roughly speaking, this is the number of years it would take for the profits of this corporation to pay off the value of its stock. If they pay most of their profits in dividends, it is approximately how many years you’d need to hold the stock in order to get as much in dividends as you paid for the shares.

Do you want P/E to be large or small? You want it to be small. This is called value investing, but it really should just be called “investing”. The alternatives to value investing are actually not investment but speculation and arbitrage. If you are actually investing, you are buying into companies that are currently undervalued; you want them to be cheap.

Of course, it is not always easy to tell whether a company is undervalued. A common rule-of-thumb is that you should aim for a P/E around 20 (20 years to pay off means about 5% return in dividends); if the P/E is below 10, it’s a fantastic deal, and if it is above 30, it might not be worth the price. But reality is of course more complicated than this. You don’t actually care about current earnings, you care about future earnings, and it could be that a company which is earning very little now will earn more later, or vice-versa. The more you can learn about a company, the better judgment you can make about their future profitability; this is another reason why it makes sense to buy large, well-known companies rather than tiny startups.

My final piece of advice is not to trade too frequently. Especially with something like Robinhood where trades are instant and free, it can be tempting to try to ride every little ripple in the market. Up 0.5%? Sell! Down 0.3%? Buy! And yes, in principle, if you could perfectly forecast every such fluctuation, this would be optimal—and make you an almost obscene amount of money. But you can’t. We know you can’t. You need to remember that you can’t. You should only trade if one of two things happens: Either your situation changes, or the company’s situation changes. If you need the money, sell, to get the money. If you have extra savings, buy, to give those savings a good return. If something bad happened to the company and their profits are going to fall, sell. If something good happened to the company and their profits are going to rise, buy. Otherwise, hold. In the long run, those who hold stocks longer are better off.

Financial fraud is everywhere

Jun 4, JDN 2457909
When most people think of “crime”, they probably imagine petty thieves, pickpockets, drug dealers, street thugs. In short, we think of crime as something poor people do. And certainly, that kind of crime is more visible, and typically easier to investigate and prosecute. It may be more traumatic to be victimized by it (though I’ll get back to that in a moment).

The statistics on this matter are some of the fuzziest I’ve ever come across, so estimates could be off by as much as an order of magnitude. But there is some reason to believe that, within most highly-developed countries, financial fraud may actually be more common than any other type of crime. It is definitely among the most common, and the only serious contenders for exceeding it are other forms of property crime such as petty theft and robbery.

It also appears that financial fraud is the one type of crime that isn’t falling over time. Violent crime and property crime are both at record lows; the average American’s probability of being victimized by a thief or a robber in any given year has fallen from 35% to 11% in the last 25 years. But the rate of financial fraud appears to be roughly constant, and the rate of high-tech fraud in particular is definitely rising. (This isn’t too surprising, given that the technology required is becoming cheaper and more widely available.)

In the UK, the rate of credit card fraud rose during the Great Recession, fell a little during the recovery, and has been holding steady since 2010; it is estimated that about 5% of people in the UK suffer credit card fraud in any given year.

About 1% of US car loans are estimated to contain fraudulent information (such as overestimated income or assets). As there are over $1 trillion in outstanding US car loans, that amounts to about $5 billion in fraud losses every year.

Using DOJ data, Statistic Brain found that over 12 million Americans suffer credit card fraud any given year; based on the UK data, this is probably an underestimate. They also found that higher household income had only a slight effect of increasing the probability of suffering such fraud.

The Office for Victims of Crime estimates that total US losses due to financial fraud are between $40 billion and $50 billion per year—which is to say, the GDP of Honduras or the military budget of Japan. The National Center for Victims of Crime estimated that over 10% of Americans suffer some form of financial fraud in any given year.

Why is fraud so common? Well, first of all, it’s profitable. Indeed, it appears to be the only type of crime that is. Most drug dealers live near the poverty line. Most bank robberies make off with less than $10,000.

But Bernie Madoff made over $50 billion before he was caught. Of course he was an exceptional case; the median Ponzi scheme only makes off with… $2.1 million. That’s over 200 times the median bank robbery.

Second, I think financial fraud allows the perpetrator a certain psychological distance from their victims. Just as it’s much easier to push a button telling a drone to launch a missile than to stab someone to death, it’s much easier to move some numbers between accounts than to point a gun at someone’s head and demand their wallet. Construal level theory is all about how making something seem psychologically more “distant” can change our attitudes toward it; toward things we perceive as “distant”, we think more abstractly, we accept more risks, and we are more willing to engage in violence to advance a cause. (It also makes us care less about outcomes, which may be a contributing factor in the collective apathy toward climate change.)

Perhaps related to this psychological distance, we also generally have a sense that fraud is not as bad as violent crime. Even judges and juries often act as though white-collar criminals aren’t real criminals. Often the argument seems to be that the behavior involved in committing financial fraud is not so different, after all, from the behavior of for-profit business in general; are we not all out to make an easy buck?

But no, it is not the same. (And if it were, this would be more an indictment of capitalism than it is a justification for fraud. So this sort of argument makes a lot more sense coming from socialists than it does from capitalists.)

One of the central justifications for free markets lies in the assumption that all parties involved are free, autonomous individuals acting under conditions of informed consent. Under those conditions, it is indeed hard to see why we have a right to interfere, as long as no one else is being harmed. Even if I am acting entirely out of my own self-interest, as long as I represent myself honestly, it is hard to see what I could be doing that is morally wrong. But take that away, as fraud does, and the edifice collapses; there is no such thing as a “right to be deceived”. (Indeed, it is quite common for Libertarians to say they allow any activity “except by force or fraud”, never quite seeming to realize that without the force of government we would all be surrounded by unending and unstoppable fraud.)

Indeed, I would like to present to you for consideration the possibility that large-scale financial fraud is worse than most other forms of crime, that someone like Bernie Madoff should be viewed as on a par with a rapist or a murderer. (To its credit, our justice system agrees—Madoff was given the maximum sentence of 150 years in maximum security prison.)

Suppose you were given the following terrible choice: Either you will be physically assaulted and beaten until several bones are broken and you fall unconscious—or you will lose your home and all the money you put into it. If the choice were between death and losing your home, obviously, you’d lose your home. But when it is a question of injury, that decision isn’t so obvious to me. If there is a risk of being permanently disabled in some fashion—particularly mentally disabled, as I find that especially terrifying—then perhaps I accept losing my home. But if it’s just going to hurt a lot and I’ll eventually recover, I think I prefer the beating. (Of course, if you don’t have health insurance, recovering from a concussion and several broken bones might also mean losing your home—so in that case, the dilemma is a no-brainer.) So when someone commits financial fraud on the scale of hundreds of thousands of dollars, we should consider them as having done something morally comparable to beating someone until they have broken bones.

But now let’s scale things up. What if terrorist attacks, or acts of war by a foreign power, had destroyed over one million homes, killed tens of thousands of Americans by one way or another, and cut the wealth of the median American family in half? Would we not count that as one of the greatest acts of violence in our nation’s history? Would we not feel compelled to take some overwhelming response—even be tempted toward acts of brutal vengeance? Yet that is the scale of the damage done by the Great Recession—much, if not all, preventable if our regulatory agencies had not been asleep at the wheel, lulled into a false sense of security by the unending refrain of laissez-faire. Most of the harm was done by actions that weren’t illegal, yes; but some of actually was illegal (20% of direct losses are attributable to fraud), and most of the rest should have been illegal but wasn’t. The repackaging and selling of worthless toxic assets as AAA bonds may not legally have been “fraud”, but morally I don’t see how it was different. With this in mind, the actions of our largest banks are not even comparable to murder—they are comparable to invasion or terrorism. No mere individual shooting here; this is mass murder.

I plan to make this a bit of a continuing series. I hope that by now I’ve at least convinced you that the problem of financial fraud is a large and important one; in later posts I’ll go into more detail about how it is done, who is doing it, and what perhaps can be done to stop them.