Whether you are a regular reader curious about my Worldcon talk, or a Worldcon visitor interested in seeing the slides, The slides from my presentation, “How do we get to the Federation from here?” can be found here.
Jan 21 JDN 2458140
(By the way, my birthday is January 19. I can’t believe I’m turning 30.)
This is a fairly obscure news item, so you may have missed it. It should be bigger news than it is.
I can’t fault the New York Times for having its front page focus mainly on the false missile alert that was issued to some people in Hawaii; a false alarm of nuclear attack definitely is the most important thing that could be going on in the world, short of course of actual nuclear war.
CNN, on the other hand, is focused entirely on Trump. When I first wrote this post, they were also focused on Trump, mainly interested in asking whether Trump’s comments about “immigrants from shithole countries” was racist. My answer: Yes, but not because he said the countries were “shitholes”. That was crude, yes, but not altogether inaccurate. Countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan are, by any objective measure, terrible places. His comments were racist because they attributed that awfulness to the people leaving these countries. But in fact we have a word for immigrants who flee terrible places seeking help and shelter elsewhere: Refugees. We call those people refugees. There are over 10 million refugees in the world today, most of them from Syria.
So anyway, here’s the news item you should have heard about but probably didn’t: The Chief Economist of the World Bank (Paul Romer, who coincidentally I mentioned in my post about DSGE models) has opened an investigation into the possibility that the World Bank’s ratings of economic freedom were intentionally manipulated in order to tilt a Presidential election in Chile.
The worst part is, it may have worked: Chile’s “Doing Business” rating consistently fell under President Michelle Bachelet and rose under President Sebastian Piñera, and Piñera won the most recent election. Was that the reason he won? Who knows? I’m still not entirely clear on how we ended up with President Trump. But it very likely contributed.
The World Bank is supposed to be an impartial institution representing the interests of global economic development. I’m not naive; I recognize that no human institution is perfect, and there will always be competing political and economic interests within any complex institution. Development economists are subject to cognitive biases just like anyone else. If this was the work of a handful of economic analysts (or if Romer turns out to be wrong and the changes in statistical methodology were totally reasonable), so be it; let’s make sure that the bias is corrected and the analysts involved are punished.
But I fear that the rot may run deeper than this. The World Bank is effectively a form of unelected international government. It has been accused of inherent pro-capitalist (or even racist) bias due to the fact that Western governments are overrepresented in its governance, but I actually consider that accusation unfair: There are very good reasons to make sure that your international institutions are managed by liberal democracies, and turns out that most of the world’s liberal democracies are Western. The fact that the US, France, Germany, and the UK make most of the decisions is entirely sensible: Those are in fact the countries we should want making global decisions.
China is not underrepresented, because China is not a democracy and doesn’t deserve to be represented. They are already more represented in the World Bank than they should be, because representing the PRC is not actually representing the interests of the people of China. Russia and Saudi Arabia are undeniably overrepresented. India is underrepresented; they should be complaining. Some African democracies, such as Namibia and Botswana, would also have a legitimate claim to underrepresentation. But I don’t lose any sleep over the fact that Zimbabwe and Iran aren’t getting votes in the World Bank. If and when those countries actually start representing their people, then we can talk about giving them representation in world government. I don’t see how refusing to give international authority to dictators and theocrats constitutes racism or pro-capitalist bias.
That said, there are other reasons to think that the World Bank might actually have some sort of pro-capitalist bias. The World Bank was instrumental in forming the Washington Consensus, which opened free trade and increase economic growth worldwide, but also exposed many poor countries to risk from deregulated financial markets and undermined social safety nets through fiscal austerity programs. They weren’t wrong to want more free trade, and many of their reforms did make sense; but they were at best wildly overconfident in their policy prescriptions, and at worst willing to sacrifice people in poor countries at the altar of bank profits. World poverty has in fact fallen by about half since 1990, and the World Bank has a lot to do with that. But things may have gone faster and smoother if they hadn’t insisted on removing so many financial regulations so quickly without clear forecasts of what would happen. I don’t share Jason Hickel’s pessimistic view that the World Bank’s failures were intentional acts toward an ulterior agenda, but I can see how it begins to look that way when they keep failing the same ways over and over again. (I instead invoke Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”)
There are also reports of people facing retaliation for criticizing World Bank projects, including those within the World Bank who raise ethical concerns. If this was politically-motivated data manipulation, there may have been people who saw it happening, but were afraid to say anything for fear of being fired or worse.
And Chile in particular has reason to be suspicious. The World Bank suddenly started giving loans to Chile when Augusto Pinochet took power (the CIA denies supporting the coup, by the way—though, given the source, I can understand why one would take that with a grain of salt), and did so under the explicit reasoning that an authoritarian capitalist regime was somehow “more trustworthy” than a democratic socialist regime. Even in the narrow sense of financial creditworthiness that seems difficult to defend; the World Bank knew almost nothing about what kind of government Pinochet was going to create, and in fact despite the so-called “Miracle of Chile”, rapid economic growth in Chile didn’t really happen until the 1990s, after Chile became a democratic capitalist regime.
What I’m really getting at here is that the World Bank has a lot to answer for. I am prepared to believe that most of these actions were honest mistakes or ideological blinders, rather than corruption or cruelty; but even so, when millions of lives are at stake, even honest mistakes aren’t so forgivable. They should be looking for ways to improve their internal governance to make sure that mistakes are caught and corrected quickly. They should be constantly vigilant for biases—either intentional or otherwise—that might seep into their research. Error should be met with immediate correction and public apology; malfeasance should be met with severe punishment.
Perhaps Romer’s investigation actually signals a shift toward such a policy. If so, this is a very good thing. If only we had done this, say, thirty years ago.
July 23, JDN 2457958
It’s easy to make the figures sound alarming, especially if you are a xenophobic American:
Annual GDP growth in the US is currently 2.1%, while annual GDP growth in China is 6.9%. At markte exchange rates, US GDP is currently $18.6 trillion, while China’s GDP is $11.2 trillion. If these growth rates continue, that means that China’s GDP will surpass ours in just 12 years.
Looking instead at per-capita GDP (and now using purchasing-power-parity, which is a much better measure for standard of living), the US is currently at $53,200 per person per year while China is at $14,400 per person per year. Since 2010 US per-capita GDP PPP has been growing at about 1.2%, while China’s has been growing at 7.1%. At that rate, China will surpass the US in standard of living in only 24 years.
And then if you really want to get scared, you start thinking about what happens if this growth continues for 20, or 30, or 50 years. At 50 years of these growth rates, US GDP will just about triple; but China’s GDP would increase by almost a factor of thirty. US per-capita GDP will increase to about $150,000, while China’s per-capita GDP will increase all the way to $444,000.
But while China probably will surpass the US in total nominal GDP within say 15 years, the longer-horizon predictions are totally unfounded. In fact, there is reason to believe that China will never surpass the US in standard of living, at least within the foreseeable future. Sure, some sort of global catastrophe could realign the world’s fortunes (climate change being a plausible candidate) and over very long time horizons all sorts of things can happen; but barring catastrophe and looking within the next few generations, there’s little reason to think that the average person in China will actually be better off than the average person in the United States. Indeed, while that $150,000 figure is actually remarkably plausible, that $444,000 figure is totally nonsensical. I project that in 2065, per-capita GDP in the US will indeed be about $150,000, but per-capita GDP in China will be more like $100,000.
That’s still a dramatic improvement over today for both countries, and something worth celebrating; but the panic that the US must be doing something wrong and China must be doing something right, that China is “eating our lunch” in Trump’s terminology, is simply unfounded.
Why am I so confident of this? Because, for all the proud proclamations of Chinese officials and panicked reports of American pundits, China’s rapid growth rates are not unprecedented. We have seen this before.
Look at South Korea. As I like to say, the discipline of development economics is basically the attempt to determine what happened in South Korea 1950-2000 and how to make it happen everywhere.
In 1960, South Korea’s nominal per-capita GDP was only $944. In 2016, it was $25,500. That takes them from solidly Third World underdeveloped status into very nearly First World highly-developed status in just two generations. This was an average rate of growth of 6.0%. But South Korea didn’t grow steadily at 6.0% for that entire period. Their growth fluctuated wildly (small countries tend to do that; they are effectively undiversified assets), but also overall trended downward.
The highest annual growth rate in South Korea over that time period was an astonishing 20.8%. Over twenty percent per year. Now that is growth you would feel. Imagine going from an income of $10,000 to an income of $12,000, in just one year. Imagine your entire country doing this. In its best years, South Korea was achieving annual growth rates in income comparable to the astronomical investment returns of none other than Warren Buffett (For once, we definitely had r < g). Even if you smooth out over the boom-and-bust volatility South Korea went through during that period, they were still averaging growth rates over 7.5% in the 1970s.
I wasn’t alive then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans back then were panicking about South Korea’s growth too. Maybe not, since South Korea was and remains a close US ally, and their success displayed the superiority of capitalism over Communism (boy did it ever: North Korea’s per capita GDP also started at about $900 in 1960, and is still today… only about $1000!); but you could have made the same pie-in-the-sky forecasts of Korea taking over the world if you’d extrapolated their growth rates forward.
South Korea’s current growth rate, on the other hand? 2.9%. Not so shocking now!
Moreover, this is a process we understand theoretically as well as empirically. The Solow model is now well-established as the mainstream neoclassical model of economic growth, and it directly and explicitly predicts this sort of growth pattern, where a country that starts very poor will initially grow extremely fast as they build a capital base and reverse-engineer technology from more advanced countries, but then over a couple of generations their growth will slow down and eventually level off once they reach a high level of economic development.
Indeed, the basic reason is quite simple: A given proportional growth is easier to do when you start small. (There’s more to it than that, involving capital degradation and diminishing marginal returns, but at its core, that’s the basic idea.)
I think I can best instill this realization in you by making another comparison between the US and China: How much income are we adding in absolute terms?
US per-capita GDP of $53,200 is growing at 1.2% per year; that means we’re adding $640 per person per year. China per-capita GDP of $14,400 is growing at 7.1% per year; that means they’re adding $1,020 per year. So while it sounds like they are growing almost six times faster, they’re actually only adding about 40% more real income per person each year than we are. It’s just a larger proportion to them.
Indeed, China is actually doing relatively well on this scale. Many developing countries that are growing “fast” are actually adding less income per person in absolute terms than many highly-developed countries. India’s per capita GDP is growing at 5.8% per year, but adding only $340 per person per year. Ethiopia’s income per person is growing by 4.9%—which is only $75 per person per year. Compare this to the “slow” growth of the UK, where 1.0% annual growth is still $392 per person per year, or France, where “stagnant” growth of 0.8% is still $293 per person per year.
Back when South Korea was growing at 20%, that was still on the order of $200 per person per year. Their current 2.9%, on the other hand, is actually $740 per person per year. We often forget just how poor many poor countries truly are; what sounds like a spectacular growth rate still may not be all that much in absolute terms.
Here’s a graph (on a log scale) of GDP per capita in the US, Japan, China, and Korea, from World Bank data since 1960. I’d prefer to use GDP PPP, but the World Bank data doesn’t go back far enough.
As you can see, there is a general pattern of growth at a decreasing rate; it’s harder to see in China because they are earlier in the process; but there’s good reason to think that they will follow the same pattern.
If anything, I think the panic about Japan in the 1990s may have been more justifiable (not that it was terribly justified either). As you can see on the graph, in terms of nominal GDP per capita, Japan actually did briefly surpass the United States in the 1990s. Of course, the outcome of that was not a global war or Japan ruling the world or something; it was… the Nintendo Wii and the Toyota Prius.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from writing news articles and even publishing economic papers about how this time is different, not like all the other times we saw the exact same pattern. Many Chinese officials appear to believe that China is special, that they can continue to grow at extremely high rates indefinitely without the constraints that other countries would face. But for once economic theory and economic data are actually in very good agreement: These high growth rates will not last forever. They will slow down, and that’s not such a bad thing. By the time they do, China will have greatly raised their standard of living to something very close to our own. Hundreds of millions of people have already been lifted out of abject poverty; continued growth could benefit hundreds of millions more.
The far bigger problem would be if the government refuses to accept that growth must slow down, and begins trying to force impossible levels of growth or altering the economic data to make it appear as though growth has occurred that hasn’t. We already know that the People’s Republic of China has a track record of doing this sort of thing: we know they have manipulated some data, though we think only in small ways, and the worst example of an attempt at forcing economic growth in human history was in China, the so-called “Great Leap Forward” that killed 20 million people. The danger is not that China will grow this fast forever, nor that they will slow down soon enough, but that they will slow down and their government will refuse to admit it.
Jan 8, JDN 2457762
A few weeks ago I tried to provide assurances that the “student debt crisis” is really not much of a crisis; there is a lot of debt, but it is being spent on a very good investment both for individuals and for society. Student debt is not that large in the scheme of things, and it more than pays for itself in the long run.
But this does not mean we are not in the midst of an education crisis. It’s simply not about debt.
The crisis I’m worried about involves access.
As you may recall, there are a substantial number of people with very small amounts of student debt, and they tend to be the most likely to default. The highest default rates are among the group of people with student debt greater than $0 but less than $5000.
So how is it that there are people with only $5,000 in student debt anyway? You can’t buy much college for $5,000 these days, as tuition prices have risen at an enormous rate: From 1983 to 2013, in inflation-adjusted dollars, average annual tuition rose from $7,286 at public institutions and $17,333 at private institutions to $15,640 at public institutions and $35,987 at private institutions—more than doubling in each case.
Enrollments are much higher, but this by itself should not raise tuition per student. So where is all the extra money going? Some of it is due to increases in public funding that have failed to keep up with higher enrollments; but a lot of it just seems to be going to higher pay for administrators and athletic coaches. This is definitely a problem; students should not be forced to subsidize the millions of dollars most universities lose on funding athletics—the NCAA, who if anything are surely biased in favor of athletics, found that the total net loss due to athletics spending at FBS universities was $17 million per year. Only a handful of schools actually turn a profit on athletics, all of them Division I. So it might be fair to speak of an “irresponsible college administration crisis”, administrators who heap wealth upon themselves and their beloved athletic programs while students struggle to pay their bills, or even a “college tuition crisis” where tuition keeps rising far beyond what is sustainable. But that’s not the same thing as a “student debt crisis”—just as the mortgage crisis we had in 2008 is distinct from the slow-burning housing price crisis we’ve been in since the 1980s. Making restrictions on mortgages tighter might prevent banks from being as predatory as they have been lately, but it won’t suddenly allow people to better afford houses.
And likewise, I’m much more worried about students who don’t go to college because they are afraid of this so-called “debt crisis”; they’re going to end up much worse off. As Eduardo Porter put it in the New York Times:
And yet Mr. Beltrán says he probably wouldn’t have gone to college full time if he hadn’t received a Pell grant and financial aid from New York State to defray the costs. He has also heard too many stories about people struggling under an unbearable burden of student loans to even consider going into debt. “Honestly, I don’t think I would have gone,” he said. “I couldn’t have done four years.”
And that would have been the wrong decision.
His reasoning is not unusual. The rising cost of college looms like an insurmountable obstacle for many low-income Americans hoping to get a higher education. The notion of a college education becoming a financial albatross around the neck of the nation’s youth is a growing meme across the culture. Some education experts now advise high school graduates that a college education may not be such a good investment after all. “Sticker price matters a lot,” said Lawrence Katz, a professor of Harvard University. “It is a deterrent.”
And the most perplexing part of this accounting is that regardless of cost, getting a degree is the best financial decision a young American can make.
According to the O.E.C.D.’s report, a college degree is worth $365,000 for the average American man after subtracting all its direct and indirect costs over a lifetime. For women — who still tend to earn less than men — it’s worth $185,000.
College graduates have higher employment rates and make more money. According to the O.E.C.D., a typical graduate from a four-year college earns 84 percent more than a high school graduate. A graduate from a community college makes 16 percent more.
A college education is more profitable in the United States than in pretty much every other advanced nation. Only Irish women get more for the investment: $185,960 net.
So, these students who have $5,000 or less in student debt; what does that mean? That amount couldn’t even pay for a single year at most universities, so how did that happen?
Well, they almost certainly went to community college; only a community college could provide you with a nontrivial amount of education for less than $5,000. But community colleges vary tremendously in their quality, and some have truly terrible matriculation rates. While most students who start at a four-year school do eventually get a bachelor’s degree (57% at public schools, 78% at private schools), only 17% of students who start at community college do. And once students drop out, they very rarely actually return to complete a degree.
Indeed, the only way to really have that little student debt is to drop out quickly. Most students who drop out do so chiefly for reasons that really aren’t all that surprising: Mostly, they can’t afford to pay their bills. “Unable to balance school and work” is the number 1 reported reason why students drop out of college.
In the American system, student loans are only designed to pay the direct expenses of education; they often don’t cover the real costs of housing, food, transportation and healthcare, and even when they do, they basically never cover the opportunity cost of education—the money you could be making if you were working full-time instead of going to college. For many poor students, simply breaking even on their own expenses isn’t good enough; they have families that need to be taken care of, and that means working full-time. Many of them even need to provide for their parents or grandparents who may be poor or disabled. Yet in the US system it is tacitly assumed that your parents will help you—so when you need to help them, what are you supposed to do? You give up on college and you get a job.
The most successful reforms for solving this problem have been comprehensive; they involved working to support students directly and intensively in all aspects of their lives, not just the direct financial costs of school itself.
Another option would be to do something more like what they do in Sweden, where there is also a lot of student debt, but for a very different reason. The direct cost of college is paid automatically by the government. Yet essentially all Swedish students have student debt, and total student debt in Sweden is much larger than other European countries and comparable to the United States; why? Because Sweden understands that you should also provide for the opportunity cost. In Sweden, students live fully self-sufficient on student loans, just as if they were working full-time. They are not expected to be supported by their parents.
The problem with American student loans, then, is not that they are too large—but that they are too small. They don’t provide for what students actually need, and thus don’t allow them to make the large investment in their education that would have paid off in the long run. Panic over student loans being too large could make the problem worse, if it causes us to reduce the amount of loanable funds available for students.
The lack of support for poor students isn’t the only problem. There are also huge barriers to education in the US based upon race. While Asian students do as well (if not better) than White students, Black and Latino students have substantially lower levels of educational attainment. Affirmative action programs can reduce these disparities, but they are unpopular and widely regarded as unfair, and not entirely without reason.
A better option—indeed one that should be a no-brainer in my opinion—is not to create counter-biases in favor of Black and Latino students (which is what affirmative action is), but to eliminate biases in favor of White students that we know exist. Chief among these are so-called “legacy admissions”, in which elite universities attract wealthy alumni donors by granting their children admission and funding regardless of whether they even remotely deserve it or would contribute anything academically to the university.
These “legacy admissions” are frankly un-American. They go against everything our nation supposedly stands for; in fact, they reek of feudalism. And unsurprisingly, they bias heavily in favor of White students—indeed, over 90 percent of legacy admits are White and Protestant. Athletic admissions are also contrary to the stated mission of the university, though their racial biases are more complicated (Black students are highly overrepresented in football and basketball admits, for example) and it is at least not inherently un-American to select students based upon their athletic talent as opposed to their academic talent.
But this by itself would not be enough; the gaps are clearly too large to close that way. Getting into college is only the start, and graduation rates are much worse for Black students than White students. Moreover, the education gap begins well before college—high school dropout rates are much higher among Black and Latino studentsas well.
In fact, even closing the education gap by itself would not be enough; racial biases permeate our whole society. Black individuals with college degrees are substantially more likely to be unemployed and have substantially lower wages on average than White individuals with college degrees—indeed, a bachelor’s degree gets a Black man a lower mean wage than a White man would get with only an associate’s degree.
Fortunately, the barriers against women in college education have largely been conquered. In fact, there are now more women in US undergraduate institutions than men. This is not to say that there are not barriers against women in society at large; women still make about 75% as much income as men on average, and even once you adjust for factors such as education and career choice they still only make about 95% as much. Moreover, these factors we’re controlling for are endogenous. Women don’t choose their careers in a vacuum, they choose them based upon a variety of social and cultural pressures. The fact that 93% of auto mechanics are men and 79% of clerical workers are women might reflect innate differences in preferences—but it could just as well reflect a variety of cultural biases or even outright discrimination. Quite likely, it’s some combination of these. So it is not obvious to me that the “adjusted” wage gap is actually a more accurate reflection of the treatment of women in our society than the “unadjusted” wage gap; the true level of bias is most likely somewhere in between the two figures.
Gender wage gaps vary substantially across age groups and between even quite similar countries: Middle-aged women in Germany make 28% less than middle-aged men, while in France that gap is only 19%. Young women in Latvia make 14% less than young men, but in Romania they make 1.1% more. This variation clearly shows that this is not purely the effect of some innate genetic difference in skills or preferences; it must be at least in large part the product of cultural pressures or policy choices.
Even within academia, women are less likely to be hired full-time instead of part-time, awarded tenure, or promoted to administrative positions. Moreover, this must be active discrimination in some form, because gaps in hiring and wage offers between men and women persist in randomized controlled experiments. You can literally present the exact same resume and get a different result depending on whether you attached a male name or a female name.
But at least when it comes to the particular question of getting bachelor’s degrees, we have achieved something approaching equality across gender, and that is no minor accomplishment. Most countries in the world still have more men than women graduating from college, and in some countries the difference is terrifyingly large. I found from World Bank data that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, only 3% of men go to college—and less than 1% of women do. Even in Germany, 29% of men graduate from college but only 19% of women do. Getting both of these figures over 30% and actually having women higher than men is a substantial achievement for which the United States should be proud.
Yet it still remains the case that Americans who are poor, Black, Native American, or Latino are substantially less likely to ever make it through college. Panic about student debt might well be making this problem worse, as someone whose family makes $15,000 per year is bound to hear $50,000 in debt as an overwhelming burden, even as you try to explain that it will eventually pay for itself seven times over.
We need to instead be talking about the barriers that are keeping people from attending college, and pressuring them to drop out once they do. Debt is not the problem. Even tuition is not really the problem. Access is the problem. College is an astonishingly good investment—but most people never get the chance to make it. That is what we need to change.
Environmentalists have a reputation for being pessimists, and it is not entirely undeserved. While as Paul Samuelson said, all Street indexes have predicted nine out of the last five recessions, environmentalists have predicted more like twenty out of the last zero ecological collapses.
Some fairly serious scientists have endorsed predictions of imminent collapse that haven’t panned out, and many continue to do so. This Guardian article should be hilarious to statisticians, as it literally takes trends that are going one direction, maps them onto a theory that arbitrarily decides they’ll suddenly reverse, and then says “the theory fits the data”. This should be taught in statistics courses as a lesson in how not to fit models. More data distortion occurs in this Scientific American article, which contains the phrase “food per capita is decreasing”; well, that’s true if you just look at the last couple of years, but according to FAOSTAT, food production per capita in 2012 (the most recent data in FAOSTAT) was higher than literally every other year on record except 2011. So if you allow for even the slightest amount of random fluctuation, it’s very clear that food per capita is increasing, not decreasing.
So many people predicting imminent collapse of human civilization. And yet, for some reason, all the people predicting this go about their lives as if it weren’t happening! Why, it’s almost as if they don’t really believe it, and just say it to get attention. Nobody gets on the news by saying “Civilization is doing fine; things are mostly getting better.”
There’s a long history of these sorts of gloom and doom predictions; perhaps the paradigm example is Thomas Malthus in 1779 predicting the imminent destruction of civilization by inevitable famine—just in time for global infant mortality rates to start plummeting and economic output to surge beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
Still, when I sat down to study this it was remarkable to me just how good the outlook is for future sustainability. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare was created essentially in an attempt to show how our economic growth is largely an illusion driven by our rapacious natural resource consumption, but it has since been discontinued, perhaps because it didn’t show that. Using the US as an example, I reconstructed the index as best I could from World Bank data, and here’s what came out for the period since 1990:
The top line is US GDP as normally measured. The bottom line is the ISEW. The gap between those lines expands on a linear scale, but not on a logarithmic scale; that is to say, GDP and ISEW grow at almost exactly the same rate, so ISEW is always a constant (and large) proportion of GDP. By construction it is necessarily smaller (it basically takes GDP and subtracts out from it), but the fact that it is growing at the same rate shows that our economic growth is not being driven by depletion of natural resources or the military-industrial complex; it’s being driven by real improvements in education and technology.
The Human Development Index has grown in almost every country (albeit at quite different rates) since 1990. Global poverty is the lowest it has ever been. We are living in a golden age of prosperity. This is such a golden age for our civilization, our happiness rating maxed out and now we’re getting +20% production and extra gold from every source. (Sorry, gamer in-joke.)
Now, it is said that pride cometh before a fall; so perhaps our current mind-boggling improvements in human welfare have only been purchased on borrowed time as we further drain our natural resources.
There is some cause for alarm: We’re literally running out of fish, and groundwater tables are falling rapidly. Due to poor land use deserts are expanding. Huge quantities of garbage now float in our oceans. And of course, climate change is poised to kill millions of people. Arctic ice will melt every summer starting in the next few years.
And yet, global carbon emissions have not been increasing the last few years, despite strong global economic growth. We need to be reducing emissions, not just keeping them flat (in a previous post I talked about some policies to do that); but even keeping them flat while still raising standard of living is something a lot of environmentalists kept telling us we couldn’t possibly do. Despite constant talk of “overpopulation” and a “population bomb”, population growth rates are declining and world population is projected to level off around 9 billion. Total solar power production in the US expanded by a factor of 40 in just the last 10 years.
Of course, I don’t deny that there are serious environmental problems, and we need to make policies to combat them; but we are doing that. Humanity is not mindlessly plunging headlong into an abyss; we are taking steps to improve our future.
And in fact I think environmentalists deserve a lot of credit for that! Raising awareness of environmental problems has made most Americans recognize that climate change is a serious problem. Further pressure might make them realize it should be one of our top priorities (presently most Americans do not).
And who knows, maybe the extremist doomsayers are necessary to set the Overton Window for the rest of us. I think we of the center-left (toward which reality has a well-known bias) often underestimate how much we rely upon the radical left to pull the discussion away from the radical right and make us seem more reasonable by comparison. It could well be that “climate change will kill tens of millions of people unless we act now to institute a carbon tax and build hundreds of nuclear power plants” is easier to swallow after hearing “climate change will destroy humanity unless we act now to transform global capitalism to agrarian anarcho-socialism.” Ultimately I wish people could be persuaded simply by the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the carbon tax/nuclear power argument, but alas, humans are simply not rational enough for that; and you must go to policy with the public you have. So maybe irrational levels of pessimism are a worthwhile corrective to the irrational levels of optimism coming from the other side, like the execrable sophistry of “in praise of fossil fuels” (yes, we know our economy was built on coal and oil—that’s the problem. We’re “rolling drunk on petroleum”; when we’re trying to quit drinking, reminding us how much we enjoy drinking is not helpful.).
But I worry that this sort of irrational pessimism carries its own risks. First there is the risk of simply giving up, succumbing to learned helplessness and deciding there’s nothing we can possibly do to save ourselves. Second is the risk that we will do something needlessly drastic (like the a radical socialist revolution) that impoverishes or even kills millions of people for no reason. The extreme fear that we are on the verge of ecological collapse could lead people to take a “by any means necessary” stance and end up with a cure worse than the disease. So far the word “ecoterrorism” has mainly been applied to what was really ecovandalism; but if we were in fact on the verge of total civilizational collapse, I can understand why someone would think quite literal terrorism was justified (actually the main reason I don’t is that I just don’t see how it could actually help). Just about anything is worth it to save humanity from destruction.
John Oliver is probably the best investigative journalist in America today, despite being neither American nor officially a journalist; last week he took on the subject of credit rating agencies, a classic example of his mantra “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” (note that it’s on HBO, so there is foul language):
As ever, his analysis of the subject is quite good—it’s absurd how much power these agencies have over our lives, and how little accountability they have for even assuring accuracy.
But I couldn’t help but feel that he was kind of missing the point. The credit rating agencies to really be worried about aren’t Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, the ones that assess credit ratings on individuals. They are Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch (which would have been even easier to skewer the way John Oliver did—perhaps we can get them confused with Standardly Poor, Moody, and Filch), the agencies which assess credit ratings on institutions.
These credit rating agencies have almost unimaginable power over our society. They are responsible for rating the risk of corporate bonds, certificates of deposit, stocks, derivatives such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, and even municipal and government bonds.
S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch don’t just rate the creditworthiness of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase; they rate the creditworthiness of Detroit and Greece. (Indeed, they played an important role in the debt crisis of Greece, which I’ll talk about more in a later post.)
Moreover, they are proven corrupt. It’s a matter of public record.
Standard and Poor’s is the worst; they have been successfully sued for fraud by small banks in Pennsylvania and by the State of New Jersey; they have also settled fraud cases with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice.
But in fact this underestimates the corruption, because the worst conflicts of interest aren’t even illegal, or weren’t until Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010. The basic structure of this credit rating system is fundamentally broken; the agencies are private, for-profit corporations, and they get their revenue entirely from the banks that pay them to assess their risk. If they rate a bank’s asset as too risky, the bank stops paying them, and instead goes to another agency that will offer a higher rating—and simply the threat of doing so keeps them in line. As a result their ratings are basically uncorrelated with real risk—they failed to predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the failure of mortgage-backed CDOs, and they didn’t “predict” the European debt crisis so much as cause it by their panic.
Then of course there’s the fact that they are obviously an oligopoly, and furthermore one that is explicitly protected under US law. But then it dawns upon you: Wait… US law? US law decides the structure of credit rating agencies that set the bond rates of entire nations? Yes, that’s right. You’d think that such ratings would be set by the World Bank or something, but they’re not; in fact here’s a paper published by the World Bank in 2004 about how rather than reform our credit rating system, we should instead tell poor countries to reform themselves so they can better impress the private credit rating agencies.
In fact the whole concept of “sovereign debt risk” is fundamentally defective; a country that borrows in its own currency should never have to default on debt under any circumstances. National debt is almost nothing like personal or corporate debt. Their fears should be inflation and unemployment—their monetary policy should be set to minimize the harm of these two basic macroeconomic problems, understanding that policies which mitigate one may enflame the other. There is such a thing as bad fiscal policy, but it has nothing to do with “running out of money to pay your debt” unless you are forced to borrow in a currency you can’t control (as Greece is, because they are on the Euro—their debt is less like the US national debt and more like the debt of Puerto Rico, which is suffering an ongoing debt crisis you may not have heard about). If you borrow in your own currency, you should be worried about excessive borrowing creating inflation and devaluing your currency—but not about suddenly being unable to repay your creditors. The whole concept of giving a sovereign nation a credit rating makes no sense. You will be repaid on time and in full, in nominal terms; if inflation or currency exchange has devalued the currency you are repaid in, that’s sort of like a partial default, but it’s a fundamentally different kind of “default” than simply not paying back the money—and credit ratings have no way of capturing that difference.
In particular, it makes no sense for interest rates on government bonds to go up when a country is suffering some kind of macroeconomic problem.
The basic argument for why interest rates go up when risk is higher is that lenders expect to be paid more by those who do pay to compensate for what they lose from those who don’t pay. This is already much more problematic than most economists appreciate; I’ve been meaning to write a paper on how this system creates self-fulfilling prophecies of default and moral hazard from people who pay their debts being forced to subsidize those who don’t. But it at least makes some sense.
But if a country is a “high risk” in the sense of macroeconomic instability undermining the real value of their debt, we want to ensure that they can restore macroeconomic stability. But we know that when there is a surge in interest rates on government bonds, instability gets worse, not better. Fiscal policy is suddenly shifted away from real production into higher debt payments, and this creates unemployment and makes the economic crisis worse. As Paul Krugman writes about frequently, these policies of “austerity” cause enormous damage to national economies and ultimately benefit no one because they destroy the source of wealth that would have been used to repay the debt.
By letting credit rating agencies decide the rates at which governments must borrow, we are effectively treating national governments as a special case of corporations. But corporations, by design, act for profit and can go bankrupt. National governments are supposed to act for the public good and persist indefinitely. We can’t simply let Greece fail as we might let a bank fail (and of course we’ve seen that there are serious downsides even to that). We have to restructure the sovereign debt system so that it benefits the development of nations rather than detracting from it. The first step is removing the power of private for-profit corporations in the US to decide the “creditworthiness” of entire countries. If we need to assess such risks at all, they should be done by international institutions like the UN or the World Bank.
But right now people are so stuck in the idea that national debt is basically the same as personal or corporate debt that they can’t even understand the problem. For after all, one must repay one’s debts.
This post is sort of a Patreon Readers’ Choice; it had a tied score with the previous post. If ties keep happening, I may need to devise some new scheme, lest I end up writing so many Readers’ Choice posts I don’t have time for my own topics (I suppose there are worse fates).
The idea of a global basic income is one I have alluded to many times, but never directly focused on.
As I wrote this I realized it’s actually two posts. I have good news and bad news.
First, the good news.
A national basic income is a remarkably simple, easy policy to make: When the tax code comes around for revision that year, you get Congress to vote in a very large refundable credit, disbursed monthly, that goes to everyone—that is a basic income. To avoid ballooning the budget deficit, you would also want to eliminate a bunch of other deductions and credits, and might want to raise the tax rates as well—but these are all things that we have done before many times. Different administrations almost always add some deductions and remove others, raise some rates and lower others. By this simple intervention, we could end poverty in America immediately and forever. The most difficult part of this whole process is convincing a majority of both houses of Congress to support it. (And even that may not be as difficult as it seems, for a basic income is one of the few economic policies that appeals to both Democrats, Libertarians, and even some Republicans.)
Similar routine policy changes could be applied in other First World countries. A basic income could be established by a vote of Parliament in the UK, a vote of the Senate and National Assembly in France, a vote of the Riksdag in Sweden, et cetera; indeed, Switzerland is already planning a referendum on the subject this year. The benefits of a national basic income policy are huge, the costs are manageable, the implementation is trivial. Indeed, the hardest thing to understand about all of this is why we haven’t done it already.
But the benefits of a national basic income are of course limited to the nation(s) in which it is applied. If Switzerland votes in its proposal to provide $30,000 per person per year (that’s at purchasing power parity, but it’s almost irrelevant whether I use nominal or PPP figures, because Swiss prices are so close to US prices), that will help a lot of people in Switzerland—but it won’t do much for people in Germany or Italy, let alone people in Ghana or Nicaragua. It could do a little bit for other countries, if the increased income for the poor and lower-middle class results in increased imports to Switzerland. But Switzerland especially is a very small player in global trade. A US basic income is more likely to have global effects, because the US by itself accounts for 9% of the world’s exports and 13% of the world’s imports. Some nations, particularly in Latin America, depend almost entirely upon the US to buy their exports.
But even so, national basic incomes in the entire First World would not solve the problem of global poverty. To do that, we would need a global basic income, one that applies to every human being on Earth.
The first question to ask is whether this is feasible at all. Do we even have enough economic output in the world to do this? If we tried would we simply trigger a global economic collapse?
Well,if you divide all the world’s income, adjusted for purchasing power, evenly across all the world’s population, the result is about $15,000 per person per year. This is about the standard of living of the average (by which I mean median) person in Lebanon, Brazil, or Botswana. It’s a little better than the standard of living in China, South Africa, or Peru. This is about half of what the middle class of the First World are accustomed to, but it is clearly enough to not only survive, but actually make some kind of decent living. I think most people would be reasonably happy with this amount of income, if it were stable and secure—and by construction, the majority of the world’s population would be better off if all incomes were equalized in this way.
Of course, we can’t actually do that. All the means we have for redistributing income to that degree would require sacrificing economic efficiency in various ways. It is as if we were carrying water in buckets with holes in the bottom; the amount we give at the end is a lot less than the amount we took at the start.
Indeed, the efficiency costs of redistribution rise quite dramatically as the amount redistributed increases.
I have yet to see a convincing argument for why we could not simply tax the top 1% at a 90% marginal rate and use all of that income for public goods without any significant loss in economic efficiency—this is after all more or less what we did here in the United States in the 1960s, when we had a top marginal rate over 90% and yet per capita GDP growth was considerably higher than it is today. A great many economists seem quite convinced that taxing top incomes in this way would create some grave disincentive against innovation and productivity, yet any time anything like this has been tried such disincentives have conspicuously failed to emerge. (Why, it’s almost as if the rich aren’t that much smarter and more hard-working than we are!)
I am quite sure, on the other hand, that if we literally set up the tax system so that all income gets collected by the government and then doled out to everyone evenly, this would be economically disastrous. Under that system, your income is basically independent of the work you do. You could work your entire life to create a brilliant invention that adds $10 billion to the world economy, and your income would rise by… 0.01%, the proportion that your invention added to the world economy. Or you could not do that, indeed do nothing at all, be a complete drain upon society, and your income would be about $1.50 less each year. It’s not hard to understand why a lot of people might work considerably less hard in such circumstances; if you are paid exactly the same whether you are an entrepreneur, a software engineer, a neurosurgeon, a teacher, a garbage collector, a janitor, a waiter, or even simply a couch potato, it’s hard to justify spending a lot of time and effort acquiring advanced skills and doing hard work. I’m sure there are some people, particularly in creative professions such as art, music, and writing—and indeed, science—who would continue to work, but even so the garbage would not get picked up, the hamburgers would never get served, and the power lines would never get fixed. The result would be that trying to give everyone the same income would dramatically reduce the real income available to distribute, so that we all ended up with say $5,000 per year or even $1,000 per year instead of $15,000.
Indeed, absolute equality is worse than the system of income distribution under Soviet Communism, which still provided at least some incentives to work—albeit often not to work in the most productive or efficient way.
So let’s suppose that we only have the income of the top 1% to work with. It need not be literally that we take income only from the top 1%; we could spread the tax burden wider than that, and there may even be good reasons to do so. But I think this gives us a good back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much money we would realistically have to work with in funding a global basic income. It’s actually surprisingly hard to find good figures on the global income share of the top 1%; there’s one figure going around which is not simply wrong it’s ridiculous, claiming that the income threshold for the top 1% worldwide is only $34,000. Why is it ridiculous? Because the United States comprises 4.5% of the world’s population, and half of Americans make more money than that. This means that we already have at least 2% of the world’s population making at least that much, in the United States alone. Add in people from Europe, Japan, etc. and you easily find that this must be the income of about the top 5%, maybe even only the top 10%, worldwide. Exactly where it lies depends on the precise income distributions of various countries.
But here’s what I do know; the global Gini coefficient is about 0.40, and the US Gini coefficient is about 0.45; thus, roughly speaking, income inequality on a global scale recapitulates income inequality in the US. The top 1% in the US receive about 20% of the income. So let’s say that the top 1% worldwide probably also receive somewhere around 20% of the income. We were only using it to estimate the funds available for a basic income anyway.
This would mean that our basic income could be about $3,000 per person per year at purchasing power parity. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot, and I suppose it isn’t; but the UN poverty threshold is $2 per person per day, which is $730 per person per day. Thus, our basic income is over four times what it would take to eliminate global poverty by the UN threshold.
Now in fact I think that this threshold is probably too low; but is it four times too low? We are accustomed to such a high standard of living in the First World that it’s easy to forget that people manage to survive on far, far less than we have. I think in fact our problem here is not so much poverty per se as it is inequality and financial insecurity. We live in a state of “insecure affluence”; we have a great deal (think for a moment about your shelter, transportation, computer, television, running water, reliable electricity, abundant food—and if you are reading this you probably have all these things), but we constantly fear that we may lose it at any moment, and not without reason. (My family actually lost the house I grew up in as a result of predatory banking and the financial crisis.) We are taught all our lives that the only way to protect this abundance is by means of a hyper-competitive, winner-takes-allcutthroat capitalist economy that never lets us ever become comfortable in appreciating that abundance, for it could be taken from us at any time.
I think the apotheosis of what it is to live in insecure affluence is renting an apartment in LA or New York—you must have a great deal going for you to be able to live in the city at all, but you are a renter, an interloper; the apartment, like so much of your existence, is never fully secure, never fully yours. Perhaps the icing on the cake is if you’re doing it for grad school (as I was a year ago), this bizarre system in which we live near poverty for several years not in spite but because of the fact that we are so hard-working, intelligent and educated. (And it never ceases to baffle me that economists who lived through that can still believe in the Life-Cycle Spending Hypothesis.)
Being below the poverty line in a First World country is a kind of poverty, but it’s a very different kind than being below the poverty line in a Third World country. (I think we need a new term to distinguish it, and maybe “insecure affluence” or “economic insecurity” is the right one.) A national basic income could be set considerably higher than the global basic income (since we’re giving it to far fewer people), so we might actually be able to set $15,000 nationally—but to do that worldwide would use up literally all the money in the world.
Raising the minimum income worldwide to $3,000 per person per year would transform the lives of billions of people. It would, in a very real sense, end poverty, worldwide, immediately and forever.
And that’s the good news. Stay tuned for the bad news.