Econlib

The Library of Economics and Liberty is dedicated to advancing the study of economics, markets, and liberty. Econlib offers a unique combination of resources for students, teachers, researchers, and aficionados of economic thought.

Econlib publishes three to four new economics articles and columns each month. The latest articles and columns are made available to the public on the first Monday of each month.

All Econlib articles and columns are written exclusively for us at the Library of Economics and Liberty, on various economics topics by renowned professors, researchers, and journalists worldwide. All articles and columns are retained online free of charge for public readership. Many articles and columns are discussed in concurrent comments and debate in our blog EconLog.

EconLog

The Library of Economics and Liberty features the popular daily blog EconLog. Bloggers Bryan Caplan, David Henderson, Alberto Mingardi, Scott Sumner, Pierre Lemieux and guest bloggers write on topical economics of interest to them, illuminating subjects from politics and finance, to recent films and cultural observations, to history and literature.

EconTalk

The Library of Economics and Liberty carries the podcast EconTalk, hosted by Russ Roberts. The weekly talk show features one-on-one discussions with an eclectic mix of authors, professors, Nobel laureates, entrepreneurs, leaders of charities and businesses, and people on the street. The emphases are on using topical books and the news to illustrate economic principles. Exploring how economics emerges in practice is a primary theme.

CEE

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics features authoritative editions of classics in economics, and related works in history, political theory, and philosophy, complete with definitions and explanations of economics terms and ideas.

Visit the Library of Economics and Liberty

Recent Posts

Here are the 10 latest posts from EconLog.

EconLog February 27, 2020

A First-Rate ERP

When I was a senior economist for health and energy policy with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, I wrote parts of chapters in the 1983 and 1984 Economic Report of the President (ERP.) And so, like many former economists in that job, whether in a Republican or Democratic administration, I tend to read each year’s Economic Report carefully. I found this year’s report particularly good. (Although authors are not listed individually, I presume one of them is Joshua Rauh, a Hoover colleague who is the CEA’s Principal Chief Economist.)

I should add that I tend to judge an ERP generously. The reason is that the authors always need to pay attention to the views of their big boss, the U.S. president, and of their colleagues in other agencies of the federal government. So you won’t find this year’s Report being critical of Donald Trump’s policies on trade or immigration, two areas where he favors much more regulation and taxation than the median economist. But the economists who wrote the Report don’t blow kisses at those policies either. And in one footnote, to their credit, they take a risk by pointing out that Trump’s tariffs in 2018 and 2019 imposed a deadweight loss on the U.S. economy of 0.4 percent of GDP per year.

Where the Report’s authors can say good things about Trump’s economic policies and their effects, though, they do. And it turns out there are many good things to say: on the effects of the 2017 tax cut, deregulation, economic growth, unemployment, growth of real wages, increases in household income, and the shale oil revolution. They also have interesting sections on health insurance and health care, and on the threats to growth from too-vigorous antitrust enforcement, the opioid crisis, and housing unaffordability caused by regulation. These last I will deal with in a follow-on article.

These are the opening 3 paragraphs of my latest Hoover article, “A First-Rate Economic Report – I,” February 26, 2020.

Some fantastic data on wages and inequality:

There’s other good news for workers. Whereas the CBO had projected in 2016 that the number of jobs would increase by only 1.9 million by the end of 2019, job growth blew past that projection early. By the end of December, the number of jobs had grown by a whopping 7 million.

Why the big difference? The Report notes that the CBO had assumed that most of the job growth would be from the ranks of the officially unemployed (those who were out of work and looking for work) and little from people who were not in the labor force. But at least for the fourth quarter of 2019, the authors note, 74.2 percent of people getting jobs were those who entered the labor force rather than those previously unemployed. The other nice surprise was the unemployment rate. Whereas the CBO and the Federal Reserve had projected an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent or higher by the end of 2019, it had actually fallen by a whole percentage point more, to 3.5 percent. In 2000, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started collecting data on job openings and compared them to the number of unemployed workers. In every month since then, up to early 2018, the number of unemployed people exceeded the number of job openings. But starting in early 2018, the relationship reversed. For the first time the number of job openings exceeded the number of people who were unemployed and, notes the Report, stayed that way for the next 20 months. A BLS news release from February 11 of this year shows that the streak has now extended to 22 months.

Because wages for workers at the low end of the wage scale have risen by a higher percentage than wages for workers at the high end, income inequality has fallen. Economists often use the Gini coefficient as a measure of income inequality: if all incomes are equal the Gini is 0; if one household has all the income, the Gini is 1. The Report mentions that the Gini coefficient has fallen, but, unfortunately, does not say by how much. A check of their source, a 2019 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that it fell from 0.471 in 2017 to 0.464 in 2018, a drop of 1.5 percent.

Make sure you also read the really good news on the shale revolution and its good effects, including on CO2. I do criticize the authors’ idea that a good effect of becoming more energy independent is that there will be fewer constraints on U.S. foreign policy. There will be, but I don’t think that’s necessarily good.

(0 COMMENTS)

EconLog February 27, 2020

Caplan-Weinersmith Mutual Interview

Here is an all-new pair of interviews with me and Zach Weinersmith.  First, I interview him.  Then, he interviews me.  Very fun!

(0 COMMENTS)

EconLog February 27, 2020

Three Cheers for the Coronavirus

I don’t propose to cheer for the death, financial loss, or other impairment of anybody (sorry if I weep less for rulers), but I do find a silver lining in three benefits of the current Covid-19 epidemic or pandemic. These benefits are not net benefits and certainly not net benefits for everybody: only public goods, by definition, provide net benefits to everybody.

First, the epidemic illustrates the benefits of free speech, even for a tyrant such as president Xi Jinping and the Chinese state. The Economist published an obituary of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who tried to alert people to the new epidemic and later caught the virus and died (“Li Wenliang Died on February 7th,” February 13, 2020). It is worth reflecting on what happened just before he became ill:

[On] January 3rd he was summoned to the police station. There he was accused of spreading rumours and subverting the social order. He then had to give written answers to two questions: in future, could he stop his illegal activities? “I can,” he wrote, and put his thumbprint, in red ink, on his answer. Did he understand that if he went on, he would be punished under the law? “I understand,” he wrote, and supplied another thumbprint.

EconLog February 27, 2020

Fiscal stimulus doesn’t require big government or budget deficits

In the Keynesian model, fiscal stimulus is measured by the change in the size of the budget deficit, or perhaps the change in the cyclically adjusted budget deficit. In that model, a shrinking budget surplus is every bit as expansionary as an increasing budget deficit.  Because it has nothing to do with “big government”, Keynesianism is neither “liberal” nor “conservative”.

Hong Kong provides an interesting example.  A recent Bloomberg article shows the expected effect of a recent decision to give each adult citizen a 10,000 (HK) cash payment. That’s about 1284 US dollars, and thus is somewhat larger than the (ineffective) Bush tax cut of 2008.

Hong Kong had no budget deficits during 2005-19.  Notice that the budget surplus shrank dramatically during the recession of 2009, by roughly 6% or 7% of GDP.  That’s comparable (as a share of GDP), to the change in the US budget deficit between 2008 and 2009.  Thus fiscal stimulus doesn’t require either “big government” or budget deficits.  Indeed, Hong Kong had neither in 2009.  This is why even relatively conservative economists (like Greg Mankiw) can be Keynesians.

EconLog February 27, 2020

Friedman, Heller, and the Audience

Here’s an interesting discussion between Keynesian Walter Heller and monetarist Milton Friedman in 1978. It was one of the early productions of Bob Chitester who, in the next year, put together the famous PBS series “Free to Choose.” The moderator, Marina von Neumman Whitman, does a good job. I found her more impressive on this show than I did when she was one of my bosses at the Council of Economic Advisers in 1973, when I was a summer intern.

Some highlights:

27:45: Heller criticizes the minimum wage, which was then 2.65 an hour.

34:40: A young audience member Laura Tyson, later the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Bill Clinton, asks a question from the audience.

45:30: Heller says “Milton’s quite right.”

46:20: Heller calls for taxes on pollution rather than regulation, and Friedman agrees. Then Marina makes a great point about valuing human life. (She does get the “dismal science” point wrong, but the reality is that we didn’t know at the time the source of that term.)

53:20: Marina really nicely addresses the “you’ve got the statistics but what about real people?” charge that economists often get. Indeed, I think her answer, including her example, is one of the nicest statements I’ve seen on this.

There’s a point in the discussion, but I forgot to write down the time, at which Heller notes a discussion with a smaller group years earlier where he and Friedman agreed on a number of policy issues.

By the way, as I document in this entry in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Heller wrote some great analysis of the German economic miracle in the late 1940s. Here’s the bio of Heller in the Encyclopedia. He died way too soon.

Also, here’s an earlier post that contains some fond reminiscences of Heller, whom I never met but talked to on the phone and found to be a real gentleman. My reminiscences of Milton Friedman are too numerous to list. Here’s what I got with a search.

Note: The picture above is of Friedman and Heller at their 1968 debate, not one of them in the 1978 video.

(0 COMMENTS)

EconLog February 26, 2020

Steyn on Our EU Bet

I missed Mark Steyn’s take on our EU bet (published on January 6, 2020), but here it is.  Quite admirable; Steyn avoids any hint of “I really won” or “This proves nothing.”  Instead:

So here we are on January 1st 2020. Bryan Caplan has now announced:

Since the UK remains in the EU today, it has clearly not officially withdrawn yet. End of story.

He is quite right. As of today, the United Kingdom is a (non-participatory) member of the EU. It will supposedly “officially withdraw” from the EU on January 31st – although, after the last three-and-a-half years, one would be unwise to discount yet another desperate rearguard action from the obstructionists…

After the invocation of Article 50, I chanced to be on Stuart Varney’s Fox Business show and, contemplating my C-note, I sang, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. Instead, Professor Caplan has cleaned me out. On the next Heathrow-Dublin shuttle I shall eschew the bubbly. I have contacted him to arrange delivery of the hundred dollars he won fair and square.

Mr Caplan won in a larger sense, too. As he puts it:

Yes, I did foresee that any attempt to leave the EU would be subject to a long series of obstacles, each of which could delay or even derail the exit process.

These “obstacles” were entirely of the Remoaners’ making. Britain, over the last century-and-a-half, has written more constitutions of more countries than anybody on the planet.

Further discussion:

By comparison with Mr Caplan, I was naïve. I assumed the bet was about the disposition of the polity. It was not inconceivable in 2008 to imagine the UK or indeed other EU member states voting to leave the Union – if they were given the opportunity. Of course, precisely for that reason, no one wanted to give them that opportunity: in the 2016 election, every party other than Farage’s was in favor of the EU; you could be a Tory, a socialist, a Scots nationalist, an Irish republican – and you were represented in Parliament by a Remain party. It’s like illegal immigration in the US, where pre-Trump the electorate had a choice between a de facto open-borders party and a Chamber of Commerce “comprehensive immigration reform” party, both of which lead to the exact same destination. In self-governing societies, such a gulf becomes untenable. My view was that, by 2020, popular antipathy to the EU would find political expression.

Mr Caplan was savvier. He’d already galloped on to the next phase: So what if it did? He correctly saw that the PermaState would subject the will of the people to, as he puts it, “a long series of obstacles”. In that sense, his bet of 2008 anticipated the defining feature of what’s shaping up to be the Post-Democratic Age: as I put it to Tucker a while back re Trump, the elites are revolting against the masses. You can vote outside the acceptable parameters, but you’ll just be walled up in the Hotel Brexifornia: You can check “Out” any time you like, but you can never leave.

Steyn’s absurd claim about near-bipartisan elite support for open borders aside, my only substantive disagreement comes here:

Bryan Caplan is homo economicus, so he would probably prefer to characterize the above as the superior understanding of rational experts that the modern world is too complex and interconnected for anything so crude as the yes/no up/down votes of the masses. I don’t myself think that the world is particularly more complex than it was when Westminster presumed to introduce responsible government to Nova Scotia or India, or dissolve its Central African federation, or partition the United Kingdom itself. What’s changed, certainly by comparison with the chippy nationalism of the post-colonial era, is the rise of a globalist class ever more contemptuous of dissenting views.

On average, I do trust Western elites more than Western masses.  My main reason, though, is not that the modern world is too “complex” or “interconnected,” but that (a) economic freedom, personal freedom, and cosmopolitanism are Very Good Things, and (b) Western elites are at least less opposed to all three Very Good Things than the deeply authoritarian Western masses.  Back in 2012, I described the median American voter as a “moderate national socialist,” and subsequent events have reaffirmed my doleful perspective.

Contrary to Steyn, moreover, most members of the so-called “globalist class” are only modestly less nationalist than he is.  Read Paul Krugman on immigration, or Larry Summers on economic nationalism.  While they are indeed “contemptuous of dissenting views,” this is a contempt of small differencesSeriously. 

 

 

 

(6 COMMENTS)

EconLog February 25, 2020

Open Borders in the New Yorker

Zoey Poll has written my favorite review of Open Bordersin the latest issue of the New Yorker.   Why favorite?  Because the review is not only accurate and enthusiastic, but visually attentive: “The illustrations in “Open Borders” are playful, bright, and irreverent; their simple style evokes Caplan’s relentless optimism.”  As far as I know, no other reviewer pays so much attention to our imagery.  Examples:

What about poorer countries, with low returns on labor, from which immigrants would flow? Presumably, an open-border policy would lead to a mass exodus. And yet an illustrated version of Caplan, working as a Western Union teller, reassures these countries that they would be rewarded with compensatory, monumental remittances. Brain drain wouldn’t be an issue, since the total liberalization of movement would allow everyone—not just the highly skilled—to emigrate.

Caplan writes that a “ghost town,” in which a dwindling labor pool keeps wages high, is preferable to the “zombie” towns, which trap their residents in moribund economies, that are created by the current system. (A sign on a zombie-infested Main Street reads “brains 50% off!”)

Caplan imagines a debate with Milton Friedman, who once declared that free immigration and a welfare state couldn’t coëxist. Caplan, pictured alongside Friedman in a maternity ward, explains why the fact that some immigrants end up depending on social services is a weak argument: some native-born babies grow up to depend on social services, too, and yet no one argues that we ought to restrict reproduction.

Still, there are reasons not to discount open-border thinking as mere provocation, or to see it as an idea confined solely to libertarianism. Caplan argues that birthright citizenship is a lottery of opportunity—in an accompanying illustration, a gambler at an immigration slot machine hits the jackpot (“UA”)—and other thinkers agree.

Admittedly, Poll’s not pleased with all of our visuals, but I do stand by them.

And yet, when they aren’t harmlessly humorous—statistics floating in hot-air balloons; Americans eating “Conspicuous Pecansumption” ice cream—they tend to reduce their subjects to caricature. “Poor countries” are depicted using images of generic slums and anonymous, emaciated brown people;

Our Third World slums are hardly “generic”; virtually every one is based on reference photos of actual locations.  And their residents are hardly “anonymous”; check out the kids on p.4, or the migrants on p.11.  Zach strives to give even one-shot characters their humanity, and it shows.

a person who smuggles migrants in the desert is represented as an actual coyote, wearing sunglasses.

Guilty as charged.  The coyote-as-coyote doesn’t just get our point across; for anyone who grew up on Roadrunner cartoons, it’s funny.

At times, the images embrace stereotypes in glib ways: a Chinese couple running a restaurant stand in for high-skilled immigrants, and a pickup truck crossing the border is presumed to contain those who are low-skilled.

Actually, this page (p.72) shows the contrast between mid-skilled high-school graduates and low-skilled dropouts.  I chose the former image not only because this is a common job for first-generation Chinese immigrants, but because so many Chinese restaurants are a feast for the eyes.  (Comics geeks will also catch the homage to Herge’s The Blue Lotus).

At other times, perhaps intentionally, the figures are dissonantly cartoonish. It’s hard to reckon with a cartoon version of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned while fleeing Syria, lying face down on the beach. Caplan and Weinersmith may be trying to reach those who looked away from the original photo: elsewhere in the book, Caplan suggests that open borders would make poverty more visible. “Immigration restrictions hide even more poverty than they create,” he writes.

Zach and I heavily weighed whether to incorporate this tragic image.  I planned to show it almost unaltered, but Zach convinced me that it would be better to capture the spirit of the image with a silhouette.  And yes, we are trying to reach those who looked away from the original photo.

Reactions to a few other critical remarks:

Big businesses are notably absent from Caplan’s list of beneficiaries, although they would profit from an expanded labor pool, too. Partly for this reason, Charles Koch has come out in favor of open borders. (In 2015, Bernie Sanders characterized the idea as “a Koch brothers proposal” designed to “bring in people who will work for two or three dollars an hour.”)

I severely doubt that Charles Koch has ever argued that open borders is good “because it helps big business.”  And it’s hard to understand why immigration would be good for big business specifically, rather than business in general.  Indeed, the sensible partition would be between domestic businesses that benefit from extra labor supply, and foreign businesses that lose from reduced labor supply.  Literally speaking, of course, it is never “businesses” that prosper or suffer, but business owners, which includes virtually everyone with a retirement account.

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Caplan praised the Gulf states, such as Qatar, whose temporary-worker programs, which don’t offer paths to citizenship, have made them “more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth.” Such programs have attracted migrants—but they have also proved to be fertile ground for human-rights violations, including passport confiscation and physical abuse.

Such violations are obviously bad.  My point, however, is that they are far less bad overall than outright exclusion.  Due to immigration restrictions, would-be guest workers are in a tough spot: They can accept severe poverty at home, or take a small risk of violation at a much higher-paid job abroad.  The idea that guest workers are oblivious to such risks is fanciful; in the smartphone age, ugly news travels with light-speed from receiving to sending countries.  Indeed, it is worth pointing out that low-skilled workers often face severe human rights violations in their home countries.  Money aside, are you really sure that you’d rather be a Pakistani working in Pakistan than a Pakistani working in Qatar?

Poll also points out important benefits of open borders that Open Borders fails to discuss:

An open-borders system could likewise address the coming displacement of millions, by rising sea levels, droughts, fires, and storms. The Global North, which is responsible for the great majority of greenhouse-gas emissions, might consider the opening of borders a fair exchange for almost two centuries of pollution.

The New Yorker has never failed to cover one of my books, and I’ve always been pleased by the coverage.  I’ve never forgotten Louis Menand’s line that, “Caplan is the sort of economist (are there other sorts? there must be) who engages with the views of non-economists in the way a bulldozer would engage with a picket fence if a bulldozer could express glee.”  Poll’s coverage of Open Borders, however, pleases me most of all.  She didn’t just read carefully; she looked carefully.  This is exactly the kind of reaction I was shooting for when I wrote the book, sitting at this very desk.

 

(7 COMMENTS)

EconLog February 25, 2020

Profile in Liberty: Friedrich A. Hayek

The twentieth century witnessed the unparalleled expansion of government power over the lives and livelihoods of individuals. Much of this was the result of two devastating world wars and totalitarian ideologies that directly challenged individual liberty and the free institutions of the open society. Other forms of expansion in the provision of social welfare and the regulation of the economy, while more benign in their objectives, nevertheless posed significant challenges to personal freedom. Few individuals did more to both extend our understanding of the economic processes of the free society and alert us to the dangers inherent in the growth of political power than the Nobel laureate economist and social theorist Friedrich A. Hayek. In over half a century of writing and teaching, he showed why national socialism was the very antithesis of capitalism, why communism was an economic and political philosophy ultimately doomed to failure, and why we must be wary of government intervention if we are to preserve the freedoms that make democracy and prosperity possible.

EconLog February 25, 2020

Is it time for Hannah Mather Crocker?

Sometimes women’s contributions to the political and economic life of past centuries are overlooked, not because they were minor, but simply because they were seen as stories of daily ‘domestic’ life and therefore inherently less significant than accounts of war, conquest, and statecraft. Since the 1960s, there has been a movement within the discipline of history to correct these omissions. Historians like Gerda Lerner, Anna Firor Scott, Deborah Gray White, and so many more began the work of filling in forgotten and otherwise neglected aspects of history, often in the newly emerging subfields of women’s history and black history.

However, despite all the excellent work that has been done over the past sixty years, there are still gaps in our knowledge. The evidence that I’d like to offer on that point today is the life and work of Hannah Mather Crocker.

EconLog February 25, 2020

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

I checked out the financial news network yesterday afternoon, and one commentator was incredulous that people were asking the Fed to step in to help solve the coronavirus epidemic. Of course there have also been eyes rolled in response to calls for central banks to address climate change. I certainly agree with those who are skeptical of central banks getting involved with climate change, and even have some sympathy for skepticism that central banks can do anything about the coronavirus. And yet . . .

This all reminded me of the famous line in The Leopard (which is the title of this post.) Yes, there is no need to change monetary policy in response to the coronavirus, but what does it mean to “not change monetary policy?” I’m pretty sure that the commentator would view a change in interest rates as constituting a change in monetary policy, but frequent readers of this blog know that I strongly dissent from that view. Indeed I’ve devoted much of the past decade to the almost hopeless task of convincing people that interest rates are not monetary policy. Consider two alternative views:

Market monetarist: Neutral monetary policy is stable NGDP growth that leads to on-target inflation. Easy money is excessively fast NGDP growth and tight money is excessively slow NGDP growth.

New Keynesian: Neutral policy is keeping the policy interest rate equal to the equilibrium or neutral interest rate, whereas tight money is a policy rate above the equilibrium rate and easy money is a policy rate below the equilibrium rate.

Under either of these two criteria (which are actually pretty similar), there is absolutely no reason to change monetary policy in response to the coronavirus. NGDP growth should continue at about 4%/year and the target interest rate should be adjusted daily to move in tandem with the equilibrium rate.

So why the mysterious Zen-like title of the post, which sounds sort of like a kōan? Because for monetary policy to stay the same, almost everything else must change. The money supply must change, the interest rate must change, and the exchange rate must change.

If you think I’m being too cute here, recall that (prior to 2008) holding the money supply constant generally required a change in the interest rate, and vice versa.   So it’s not necessary to be a market monetarist to buy into the claim in the title of the post.

The Leopard was also made into an excellent film, directed by Visconti:

(8 COMMENTS)

Here are the 10 latest posts from EconTalk.

EconTalk February 24, 2020

Richard Robb on Willful

Willful-200x300.jpgEconomist, author, and investor Richard Robb talks about his book Willful with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Robb is interested in what motivates and explains the choices we make. He explores alternatives to the optimizing model of economics including what he calls “for-itself” behavior–behavior that isn’t purposive. Topics discussed in this wide-ranging conversation include the nature […]

EconTalk February 17, 2020

Peter Singer on The Life You Can Save

The-Life-You-Can-Save-188x300.jpgPhilosopher and author Peter Singer of Princeton University talks about his book, The Life You Can Save with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Singer argues that those of us in the developed world with a high standard of living can and should give/forgo some luxuries and donate instead to reduce poverty and suffering in poor countries. […]

EconTalk February 10, 2020

Marty Makary on the Price We Pay

The-Price-We-Pay-198x300.jpgPhysician and author Marty Makary of Johns Hopkins University talks about his book The Price We Pay with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Makary highlights some of the stranger aspects of our current health care system including the encouragement of unnecessary or even harmful procedures and the predatory behavior of some hospitals who sue patients and […]

EconTalk February 3, 2020

Robert Shiller on Narrative Economics

Narrative-Economics-199x300.jpg Economist, author, and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller of Yale University discusses his book Narrative Economics with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Shiller proposes a novel idea–that the narratives that people believe and use to understand the world affect their economic behavior and in turn affect the macroeconomy. Shiller argues that taking these psychological effects into account […]

EconTalk January 27, 2020

Daniel Klein on Honest Income

Dan-Klein-300x225.jpgEconomist and author Daniel Klein of George Mason University talks about the ethics of working and the potential for our working lives to make the world a better place. This is a wide-ranging conversation that includes discussion of Adam Smith, what jobs we should work on, what charities we should donate to, how we can […]

EconTalk January 20, 2020

Janine Barchas on the Lost Books of Jane Austen

Lost-Books-Austen-269x300.jpgAuthor and professor Janine Barchas of the University of Texas talks about her book, The Lost Books of Jane Austen, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. The conversation explores Austen’s enduring reputation, how the cheap reprints of her work allowed that reputation to thrive, the links between Shakespeare and Austen, how Austen has thrived despite the […]

EconTalk January 13, 2020

Adam Minter on Secondhand

Journalist and author Adam Minter talks about his book Secondhand with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Minter explores the strange and fascinating world of secondhand stuff–the downsizing that the elderly do when they move to smaller quarters, the unseen side of Goodwill Industries, and the global market for rags.

The post Adam Minter on Secondhand appeared first on Econlib.

EconTalk January 6, 2020

Melanie Mitchell on Artificial Intelligence

Artificial-Intelligence-197x300.jpgComputer Scientist and author Melanie Mitchell of Portland State University and the Santa Fe Institute talks about her book Artificial Intelligence with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Mitchell explains where we are today in the world of artificial intelligence (AI) and where we might be going. Despite the hype and excitement surrounding AI, Mitchell argues that […]

EconTalk December 30, 2019

Kimberly Clausing on Open and the Progressive Case for Free Trade

Open-199x300.jpgEconomist and author Kimberly Clausing of Reed College talks about her book Open with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Clausing, a self-described progressive, argues that the United States should continue to embrace free trade but she argues for other interventions to soften the impact of trade on workers and communities.

EconTalk December 23, 2019

Joe Posnanski on the Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

Journalist and author Joe Posnanski talks about his book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Posnanski explores the enduring fame of Houdini who remains an iconic cultural figure almost a century after his death. Topics discussed include the nature of celebrity, the nature of ambition, parenting, magic, and the […]

The post Joe Posnanski on the Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini appeared first on Econlib.

Here are the 10 latest posts from CEE.

CEE July 19, 2019

Richard H. Thaler

Richard H. Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economic Science for “his contributions to behavioral economics.”

In most of his work, Thaler has challenged the standard economist’s model of rational human beings.  He showed some of the ways that people systematically depart from rationality and some of the decisions that resulted. He has used these insights to propose ways to help people save, and save more, for retirement. Thaler also advocates something called “libertarian paternalism.”

Economists generally assume that more choices are better than fewer choices. But if that were so, argues Thaler, people would be upset, not happy, when the host at a dinner party removes the pre-dinner bowl of cashews. Yet many of us are happy that it’s gone. Purposely taking away our choice to eat more cashews, he argues, makes up for our lack of self-control. This simple contradiction between the economists’ model of rationality and actual human behavior, plus many more that Thaler has observed, leads him to divide the population into “Econs” and “Humans.” Econs, according to Thaler, are people who are economically rational and fit the model completely. Humans are the vast majority of people.

CEE May 28, 2019

William D. Nordhaus

.jpg)

William D. Nordhaus was co-winner, along with Paul M. Romer, of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economic Science “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

Starting in the 1970s, Nordhaus constructed increasingly comprehensive models of the interaction between the economy and additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, along with its effects on global warming. Economists use these models, along with assumptions about various magnitudes, to compute the “social cost of carbon” (SCC). The idea is that past a certain point, additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere heat the earth and thus create a global negative externality. The SCC is the net cost that using that additional carbon imposes on society. While the warmth has some benefits in, for example, causing longer growing seasons and improving recreational alternatives, it also has costs such as raising ocean levels, making some land uses obsolete. The SCC is the net of these social costs and is measured at the current margin. (The “current margin” language is important because otherwise one can get the wrong impression that any use of carbon is harmful.) Nordhaus and others then use the SCC to recommend taxes on carbon. In 2017, Nordhaus computed the optimal tax to be 31 per ton of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, a 31 carbon tax would increase the price of gasoline by about 28 cents.

CEE May 28, 2019

William D. Nordhaus

 

William D. Nordhaus was co-winner, along with Paul M. Romer, of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economic Science “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

Starting in the 1970s, Nordhaus constructed increasingly comprehensive models of the interaction between the economy and additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, along with its effects on global warming. Economists use these models, along with assumptions about various magnitudes, to compute the “social cost of carbon” (SCC). The idea is that past a certain point, additions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere heat the earth and thus create a global negative externality. The SCC is the net cost that using that additional carbon imposes on society. While the warmth has some benefits in, for example, causing longer growing seasons and improving recreational alternatives, it also has costs such as raising ocean levels, making some land uses obsolete. The SCC is the net of these social costs and is measured at the current margin. (The “current margin” language is important because otherwise one can get the wrong impression that any use of carbon is harmful.) Nordhaus and others then use the SCC to recommend taxes on carbon. In 2017, Nordhaus computed the optimal tax to be 31 per ton of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, a 31 carbon tax would increase the price of gasoline by about 28 cents per gallon.

Nordhaus noted, though, that there is a large amount of uncertainty about the optimal tax. For the 31 tax above, the actual optimal tax could be as little as 6 per ton or as much as 93.

Interestingly, according to Nordhaus’s model, setting too high a carbon tax can be worse than setting no carbon tax at all. According to the calibration of Nordhaus’s model in 2007, with no carbon tax and no other government controls, the present value of damages from environment damage and abatement costs would be 22.59 trillion (in 2004 dollars). Nordhaus’s optimal carbon tax would have reduced damage but increased abatement costs, for a total of 19.52 trillion, an improvement of only 3.07 trillion. But the cost of a policy to limit the temperature increase to only 1.5 C would have been 37.03 trillion, which is 16.4 trillion more than the cost of the “do nothing” option. Those numbers will be different today, but what is not different is that the cost of doing nothing is substantially below the cost of limiting the temperature increase to only 1.5 C.

One item the Nobel committee did not mention is his demonstration that the price of light has fallen by many orders of magnitude over the last 200 years. He showed that the price of light in 1992, adjusted for inflation, was less than one tenth of one percent of its price in 1800. Failure to take this reduction fully into account, noted Nordhaus, meant that economists have substantially underestimated the real growth rate of the economy and the growth rate of real wages.

Nordhaus also did pathbreaking work on the distribution of gains from innovation. In a 2004 study he wrote:

Only a minuscule fraction of the social returns from technological advances over the 1948-2001 period was captured by producers, indicating that most of the benefits of technological change are passed on to consumers rather than captured by producers.

Nordhaus earned his B.A. degree at Yale University in 1963 and his Ph.D. in economics at MIT in 1967. From 1977 to 1979, he was a member of President Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers.

 

 


Selected Works

  1. . “Economic Growth and Climate: The Case of Carbon Dioxide.” American Economic Review, Vol. 67, No. 1, pp. 341-346.

  2. . “Do Real-Output and Real-Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not,” in Timothy F. Bresnahan and Robert J. Gordon, editors, The Economics of New Goods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

  3. . (with J. Boyer.) Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  4. . “Schumpeterian Profits in the American Economy: Theory and Measurement,” NBER Working Paper No. 10433, April 2004.

  5. . “Projections and Uncertainties about Climate Change in an Era of Minimal Climate Policies,” NBER Working Paper No. 22933.

(0 COMMENTS)

CEE May 28, 2019

Paul M. Romer

In 2018, U.S. economist Paul M. Romer was co-recipient, along with William D. Nordhaus, of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for “integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

Romer developed “endogenous growth theory.” Before his work in the 1980s and early 1990s, the dominant economic model of economic growth was one that MIT economist Robert Solow developed in the 1950s. Even though Solow concluded that technological change was a key driver of economic growth, his own model made technological change exogenous. That is, technological change was not something determined in the model but was an outside factor. Romer made it endogenous.

CEE May 28, 2019

Paul M. Romer

In 2018, U.S. economist Paul M. Romer was co-recipient, along with William D. Nordhaus, of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for “integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

Romer developed “endogenous growth theory.” Before his work in the 1980s and early 1990s, the dominant economic model of economic growth was one that MIT economist Robert Solow developed in the 1950s. Even though Solow concluded that technological change was a key driver of economic growth, his own model made technological change exogenous. That is, technological change was not something determined in the model but was an outside factor. Romer made it endogenous.

There are actually two very different phases in Romer’s work on endogenous growth theory. Romer (1986) and Romer (1987) had an AK model. Real output was equal to A times K, where A is a positive constant and K is the amount of physical capital. The model assumes diminishing marginal returns to K, but assumes also that part of a firm’s investment in capital results in the production of new technology or human capital that, because it is non-rival and non-excludable, generates spillovers (positive externalities) for all firms. Because this technology is embodied in physical capital, as the capital stock (K) grows, there are constant returns to a broader measure of capital that includes the new technology. Modeling growth this way allowed Romer to keep the assumption of perfect competition, so beloved by economists.

In Romer (1990), Romer rejected his own earlier model. Instead, he assumed that firms are monopolistically competitive. That is, industries are competitive, but many firms within a given industry have market power. Monopolistically competitive firms develop technology that they can exclude others from using. The technology is non-rival; that is, one firm’s use of the technology doesn’t prevent other firms from using it. Because they can exploit their market power by innovating, they have an incentive to innovate. It made sense, therefore, to think carefully about how to structure such incentives.

Consider new drugs. Economists estimate that the cost of successfully developing and bringing a new drug to market is about 2.6 billion. Once the formula is discovered and tested, another firm could copy the invention of the firm that did all the work. If that second firm were allowed to sell the drug, the first firm would probably not do the work in the first place. One solution is patents. A patent gives the inventor a monopoly for a fixed number of years during which it can charge a monopoly price. This monopoly price, earned over years, gives drug companies a strong incentive to innovate.

Another way for new ideas to emerge, notes Romer, is for governments to subsidize research and development.

The idea that technological change is not just an outside factor but itself is determined within the economic system might seem obvious to those who have read the work of Joseph Schumpeter. Why did Romer get a Nobel Prize for his insights? It was because Romer’s model didn’t “blow up.” Previous economists who had tried mathematically to model growth in a Schumpeterian way had failed to come up with models in which the process of growth was bounded.

To his credit, Romer lays out some of his insights on growth in words and very simple math. In the entry on economic growth in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Romer notes the huge difference in long run well being that would result from raising the economic growth rate by only a few percentage points. The “rule of 72” says that the length of time over which a magnitude doubles can be computed by dividing the growth rate into 72. It actually should be called the rule of 70, but the math with 72 is slightly easier. So, for example, if an economy grows by 2 percent per year, it will take 36 years for its size to double. But if it grows by 4 percent per year, it will double in 18 years.

Romer warns that policy makers should be careful about using endogenous growth theory to justify government intervention in the economy. In a 1998 interview he stated:

A lot of people see endogenous growth theory as a blanket seal of approval for all of their favourite government interventions, many of which are very wrong-headed. For example, much of the discussion about infrastructure is just wrong. Infrastructure is to a very large extent a traditional physical good and should be provided in the same way that we provide other physical goods, with market incentives and strong property rights. A move towards privatization of infrastructure provision is exactly the right way to go. The government should be much less involved in infrastructure provision.[1]

In the same interview, he stated, “Selecting a few firms and giving them money has obvious problems” and that governments “must keep from taxing income at such high rates that it severely distorts incentives.”

In 2000, Romer introduced Aplia, an on-line set of problems and answers that economics professors could assign to their students and easily grade. The upside is that students are more prepared for lectures and exams and can engage with their fellow students in economic experiments on line. The downside of Aplia, according to some economics professors, is that students get less practice actually manually drawing demand and supply curves.

In 2009, Romer started advocating “Charter Cities.” His idea was that many people are stuck in countries with bad rules that make wealth creation difficult. If, he argued, an outside government could start a charter city in a country that had bad rules, people in that country could move there. Of course, this would require the cooperation of the country with the bad rules and getting that cooperation is not an easy task. His primary example of such an experiment working is Hong Kong, which was run by the British government until 1997. In a 2009 speech on charter cities, Romer stated, “Britain, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs that we’ve undertaken in the last century.”[2]

Romer earned a B.S. in mathematics in 1977, an M.A. in economics in 1978, and a Ph.D. in economics in 1983, all from the University of Chicago. He also did graduate work at MIT and Queen’s University. He has taught at the University of Rochester, the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University, and is currently a professor at New York University.

He was chief economist at the World Bank from 2106 to 2018.

 

 

[1] “Interview with Paul M. Romer,” in Brian Snowdon and Howard R. Vane, Modern Macroeconomics: Its Origins, Development and Current State, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2005, p. 690.

[2] Paul Romer, “Why the world needs charter cities,” TEDGlobal 2009.

 


Selected Works

  1. “Increasing Returns and Long-Run Growth.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 94, No. 5, pp. 1002-1037.
  2. “Growth Based on Increasing Returns Due to Specialization.” American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, Vol. 77, No. 2, pp. 56-62.
  3. “Endogenous Technological Change.” Journal of Political Economy. Vol. 98, No. 5, S71-S102.
  4. “Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth.” American Economic Review, Vol. 105, No. 5, pp. 89-93.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

CEE March 13, 2019

Jean Tirole

Jean Tirole .jpg "Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons") 

In 2014, French economist Jean Tirole was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences “for his analysis of market power and regulation.” His main research, in which he uses game theory, is in an area of economics called industrial organization. Economists studying industrial organization apply economic analysis to understanding the way firms behave and why certain industries are organized as they are.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, economists George Stigler, Harold Demsetz, Sam Peltzman, and Yale Brozen, among others, played a dominant role in the study of industrial organization. Their view was that even though most industries don’t fit the economists’ “perfect competition” model—a model in which no firm has the power to set a price—the real world was full of competition. Firms compete by cutting their prices, by innovating, by advertising, by cutting costs, and by providing service, just to name a few. Their understanding of competition led them to skepticism about much of antitrust law and most government regulation.

In the 1980s, Jean Tirole introduced game theory into the study of industrial organization, also known as IO. The key idea of game theory is that, unlike for price takers, firms with market power take account of how their rivals are likely to react when they change prices or product offerings. Although the earlier-mentioned economists recognized this, they did not rigorously use game theory to spell out some of the implications of this interdependence. Tirole did.

One issue on which Tirole and his co-author Jean-Jacques Laffont focused was “asymmetric information.” A regulator has less information than the firms it regulates. So, if the regulator guesses incorrectly about a regulated firm’s costs, which is highly likely, it could set prices too low or too high. Tirole and Laffont showed that a clever regulator could offset this asymmetry by constructing contracts and letting firms choose which contract to accept. If, for example, some firms can take measures to lower their costs and other firms cannot, the regulator cannot necessarily distinguish between the two types. The regulator, recognizing this fact, may offer the firms either a cost-plus contract or a fixed-price contract. The cost-plus contract will appeal to firms with high costs, while the fixed-price contract will appeal to firms that can lower their costs. In this way, the regulator maintains incentives to keep costs down.

Their insights are most directly applicable to government entities, such as the Department of Defense, in their negotiations with firms that provide highly specialized military equipment. Indeed, economist Tyler Cowen has argued that Tirole’s work is about principal-agent theory rather than about reining in big business per se. In the Department of Defense example, the Department is the principal and the defense contractor is the agent.

One of Tirole’s main contributions has been in the area of “two-sided markets.” Consider Google. It can offer its services at one price to users (one side) and offer its services at a different price to advertisers (the other side). The higher the price to users, the fewer users there will be and, therefore, the less money Google will make from advertising. Google has decided to set a zero price to users and charge for advertising. Tirole and co-author Jean-Charles Rochet showed that the decision about profit-maximizing pricing is complicated, and they use substantial math to compute such prices under various theoretical conditions. Although Tirole believes in antitrust laws to limit both monopoly power and the exercise of monopoly power, he argues that regulators must be cautious in bringing the law to bear against firms in two-sided markets. An example of a two-sided market is a manufacturer of videogame consoles. The two sides are game developers and game players. He notes that it is very common for companies in such markets to set low prices on one side of the market and high prices on the other. But, he writes, “A regulator who does not bear in mind the unusual nature of a two-sided market may incorrectly condemn low pricing as predatory or high pricing as excessive, even though these pricing structures are adopted even by the smallest platforms entering the market.”

Tirole has brought the same kind of skepticism to some other related regulatory issues. Many regulators, for example, have advocated government regulation of interchange fees (IFs) in payment card associations such as Visa and MasterCard. But in 2003, Rochet and Tirole wrote that “given the [economics] profession’s current state of knowledge, there is no reason to believe that the IFs chosen by an association are systematically too high or too low, as compared with socially optimal levels.”

After winning the Nobel Prize, Tirole wrote a book for a popular audience, Economics for the Common Good. In it, he applied economics to a wide range of policy issues, laying out, among other things, the advantages of free trade for most residents of a given country and why much legislation and regulation causes negative unintended consequences.

Like most economists, Tirole favors free trade. In Economics for the Common Good, he noted that French consumers gain from freer trade in two ways. First, free trade exposes French monopolies and oligopolies to competition. He argued that two major French auto companies, Renault and Peugeot-Citroen, “sharply increased their efficiency” in response to car imports from Japan. Second, free trade gives consumers access to cheaper goods from low-wage countries.

In that same book, Tirole considered the unintended consequences of a hypothetical, but realistic, case in which a non-governmental organization, wanting to discourage killing elephants for their tusks, “confiscates ivory from traffickers.” In this hypothetical example, the organization can destroy the ivory or sell it. Destroying the ivory, he reasoned, would drive up the price. The higher price could cause poachers to kill more elephants. Another example he gave is of the perverse effects of price ceilings. Not only do they cause shortages, but also, as a result of these shortages, people line up and waste time in queues. Their time spent in queues wipes out the financial gain to consumers from the lower price, while also hurting the suppliers. No one wins and wealth is destroyed.

Also in that book, Tirole criticized the French government’s labor policies, which make it difficult for employers to fire people. He noted that this difficulty makes employers less likely to hire people in the first place. As a result, the unemployment rate in France was above 7 percent for over 30 years. The effect on young people has been particularly pernicious. When he wrote this book, the unemployment rate for French residents between 15 and 24 years old was 24 percent, and only 28.6 percent of percent of those in that age group had jobs. This was much lower than the OECD average of 39.6 percent, Germany’s 46.8 percent, and the Netherlands’ 62.3 percent.

One unintended, but predictable, consequence of government regulations of firms, which Tirole pointed out in Economics for the Common Good, is to make firms artificially small. When a French firm with 49 employees hires one more employee, he noted, it is subject to 34 additional legal obligations. Not surprisingly, therefore, in a figure that shows the number of enterprises with various numbers of employees, a spike occurs at 47 to 49 employees.

In Economics for the Common Good, Tirole ranged widely over policy issues in France. In addressing the French university system, he criticized the system’s rejection of selective admission to university. He argued that such a system causes the least prepared students to drop out and concluded that “[O]n the whole, the French educational system is a vast insider-trading crime.”

Tirole is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. A French citizen, he was born in Troyes, France and earned his Ph.D. in economics in 1981 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Selected Works

 

  1. . (Co-authored with Jean-Jacques Laffont).“Using Cost Observation to Regulate Firms”. Journal of Political Economy. 94:3 (Part I). June: 614-641.

  2. . The Theory of Industrial Organization. MIT Press.

  3. . (Co-authored with Drew Fudenberg).“Moral Hazard and Renegotiation in Agency Contracts”, Econometrica, 58:6. November: 1279-1319.

  4. . (Co-authored with Jean-Jacques Laffont). A Theory of Incentives in Procurement and Regulation. MIT Press.

2003: (Co-authored with Jean-Charles Rochet). “An Economic Analysis of the Determination of Interchange Fees in Payment Card Systems.” Review of Network Economics. 2:2: 69-79.

  1. . (Co-authored with Jean-Charles Rochet). “Two-Sided Markets: A Progress Report.” The RAND Journal of Economics. 37:3. Autumn: 645-667.

2017, Economics for the Common Good. Princeton University Press.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

CEE November 30, 2018

The 2008 Financial Crisis

It was, according to accounts filtering out of the White House, an extraordinary scene. Hank Paulson, the U.S. treasury secretary and a man with a personal fortune estimated at 700m (380m), had got down on one knee before the most powerful woman in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, and begged her to save his plan to rescue Wall Street.

    The Guardian, September 26, 20081

The financial crisis of 2008 was a complex event that took most economists and market participants by surprise. Since then, there have been many attempts to arrive at a narrative to explain the crisis, but none has proven definitive. For example, a Congressionally-chartered ten-member Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission produced three separate narratives, one supported by the members appointed by the Democrats, one supported by four members appointed by the Republicans, and a third written by the fifth Republican member, Peter Wallison.2

It is important to appreciate that the financial system is complex, not merely complicated. A complicated system, such as a smartphone, has a fixed structure, so it behaves in ways that are predictable and controllable. A complex system has an evolving structure, so it can evolve in ways that no one anticipates. We will never have a proven understanding of what caused the financial crisis, just as we will never have a proven understanding of what caused the first World War.

There can be no single, definitive narrative of the crisis. This entry can cover only a small subset of the issues raised by the episode.

Metaphorically, we may think of the crisis as a fire. It started in the housing market, spread to the sub-prime mortgage market, then engulfed the entire mortgage securities market and, finally, swept through the inter-bank lending market and the market for asset-backed commercial paper.

Home sales began to slow in the latter part of 2006. This soon created problems for the sector of the mortgage market devoted to making risky loans, with several major lenders—including the largest, New Century Financial—declaring bankruptcy early in 2007. At the time, the problem was referred to as the “sub-prime mortgage crisis,” confined to a few marginal institutions.

But by the spring of 2008, trouble was apparent at some Wall Street investment banks that underwrote securities backed by sub-prime mortgages. On March 16, commercial bank JP Morgan Chase acquired one of these firms, Bear Stearns, with help from loan guarantees provided by the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States.

Trouble then began to surface at all the major institutions in the mortgage securities market. By late summer, many investors had lost confidence in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and the interest rates that lenders demanded from them were higher than what they could pay and still remain afloat. On September 7, the U.S. Treasury took these two GSEs into “conservatorship.”

Finally, the crisis hit the short-term inter-bank collateralized lending markets, in which all of the world’s major financial institutions participate. This phase began after government officials’ unsuccessful attempts to arrange a merger of investment bank Lehman Brothers, which declared bankruptcy on September 15. This bankruptcy caused the Reserve Primary money market fund, which held a lot of short-term Lehman securities, to mark down the value of its shares below the standard value of one dollar each. That created jitters in all short-term lending markets, including the inter-bank lending market and the market for asset-backed commercial paper in general, and caused stress among major European banks.

The freeze-up in the interbank lending market was too much for leading public officials to bear. Under intense pressure to act, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposed a 700 billion financial rescue program. Congress initially voted it down, leading to heavy losses in the stock market and causing Secretary Paulson to plead for its passage. On a second vote, the measure, known as the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), was approved.

In hindsight, within each sector affected by the crisis, we can find moral hazard, cognitive failures, and policy failures. Moral hazard (in insurance company terminology) arises when individuals and firms face incentives to profit from taking risks without having to bear responsibility in the event of losses. Cognitive failures arise when individuals and firms base decisions on faulty assumptions about potential scenarios. Policy failures arise when regulators reinforce rather than counteract the moral hazard and cognitive failures of market participants.

The Housing Sector

From roughly 1990 to the middle of 2006, the housing market was characterized by the following:

  • an environment of low interest rates, both in nominal and real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Low nominal rates create low monthly payments for borrowers. Low real rates raise the value of all durable assets, including housing.
  • prices for houses rising as fast as or faster than the overall price level
  • an increase in the share of households owning rather than renting
  • loosening of mortgage underwriting standards, allowing households with weaker credit histories to qualify for mortgages.
  • lower minimum requirements for down payments. A standard requirement of at least ten percent was reduced to three percent and, in some cases, zero. This resulted in a large increase in the share of home purchases made with down payments of five percent or less.
  • an increase in the use of new types of mortgages with “negative amortization,” meaning that the outstanding principal balance rises over time.
  • an increase in consumers’ borrowing against their houses to finance spending, using home equity loans, second mortgages, and refinancing of existing mortgages with new loans for larger amounts.
  • an increase in the proportion of mortgages going to people who were not planning to live in the homes that they purchased. Instead, they were buying them to speculate. 3

These phenomena produced an increase in mortgage debt that far outpaced the rise in income over the same period. The trends accelerated in the three years just prior to the downturn in the second half of 2006.

The rise in mortgage debt relative to income was not a problem as long as home prices were rising. A borrower having difficulty finding the cash to make a mortgage payment on a house that had appreciated in value could either borrow more with the house as collateral or sell the house to pay off the debt.

But when house prices stopped rising late in 2006, households that had taken on too much debt began to default. This set in motion a reverse cycle: house foreclosures increased the supply of homes for sale; meanwhile, lenders became wary of extending credit, and this reduced demand. Prices fell further, leading to more defaults and spurring lenders to tighten credit still further.

During the boom, some people were speculating in non-owner-occupied homes, while others were buying their own homes with little or no money down. And other households were, in the vernacular of the time, “using their houses as ATMs,” taking on additional mortgage debt in order to finance consumption.

In most states in the United States, once a mortgage lender forecloses on a property, the borrower is not responsible for repayment, even if the house cannot be sold for enough to cover the loan. This creates moral hazard, particularly for property speculators, who can enjoy all of the profits if house prices rise but can stick lenders with some of the losses if prices fall.

One can see cognitive failure in the way that owners of houses expected home prices to keep rising at a ten percent rate indefinitely, even though overall inflation was less than half that amount.4Also, many house owners seemed unaware of the risks of mortgages with “negative amortization.”

Policy failure played a big role in the housing sector. All of the trends listed above were supported by public policy. Because they wanted to see increased home ownership, politicians urged lenders to loosen credit standards. With the Community Reinvestment Act for banks and Affordable Housing Goals for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, they spurred traditional mortgage lenders to increase their lending to minority and low-income borrowers. When the crisis hit, politicians blamed lenders for borrowers’ inability to repay, and political pressure exacerbated the credit tightening that subsequently took place

The Sub-prime Mortgage Sector

Until the late 1990s, few lenders were willing to give mortgages to borrowers with problematic credit histories. But sub-prime mortgage lenders emerged and grew rapidly in the decade leading up to the crisis. This growth was fueled by financial innovations, including the use of credit scoring to finely grade mortgage borrowers, and the use of structured mortgage securities (discussed in the next section) to make the sub-prime sector attractive to investors with a low tolerance for risk. Above all, it was fueled by rising home prices, which created a history of low default rates.

There was moral hazard in the sub-prime mortgage sector because the lenders were not holding on to the loans and, therefore, not exposing themselves to default risk. Instead, they packaged the mortgages into securities and sold them to investors, with the securities market allocating the risk.

Because they sold loans in the secondary market, profits at sub-prime lenders were driven by volume, regardless of the likelihood of default. Turning down a borrower meant getting no revenue. Approving a borrower meant earning a fee. These incentives were passed through to the staff responsible for finding potential borrowers and underwriting loans, so that personnel were compensated based on “production,” meaning the new loans they originated.

Although in theory the sub-prime lenders were passing on to others the risks that were embedded in the loans they were making, they were among the first institutions to go bankrupt during the financial crisis. This shows that there was cognitive failure in the management at these companies, as they did not foresee the house price slowdown or its impact on their firms.

Cognitive failure also played a role in the rise of mortgages that were underwritten without verification of the borrowers’ income, employment, or assets. Historical data showed that credit scores were sufficient for assessing borrower risk and that additional verification contributed little predictive value. However, it turned out that once lenders were willing to forgo these documents, they attracted a different set of borrowers, whose propensity to default was higher than their credit scores otherwise indicated.

There was policy failure in that abuses in the sub-prime mortgage sector were allowed to continue. Ironically, while the safety and soundness of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were regulated under the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which had an institutional mission to expand home ownership, consumer protection with regard to mortgages was regulated by the Federal Reserve Board, whose primary institutional missions were monetary policy and bank safety. Though mortgage lenders were setting up borrowers to fail, the Federal Reserve made little or no effort to intervene. Even those policy makers who were concerned about practices in the sub-prime sector believed that, on balance, sub-prime mortgage lending was helping a previously under-served set of households to attain home ownership.5

Mortagage Securities

A mortgage security consists of a pool of mortgage loans, the payments on which are passed through to pension funds, insurance companies, or other institutional investors looking for reliable returns with little risk. The market for mortgage securities was created by two government agencies, known as Ginnie Mae and Freddie Mac, established in 1968 and 1970, respectively.

Mortgage securitization expanded in the 1980s, when Fannie Mae, which previously had used debt to finance its mortgage purchases, began issuing its own mortgage-backed securities. At the same time, Freddie Mac was sold to shareholders, who encouraged Freddie to grow its market share. But even though Freddie and Fannie were shareholder-owned, investors treated their securities as if they were government-backed. This was known as an implicit government guarantee.

Attempts to create a market for private-label mortgage securities (PLMS) without any form of government guarantee were largely unsuccessful until the late 1990s. The innovations that finally got the PLMS market going were credit scoring and the collateralized debt obligation (CDO).

Before credit scoring was used in the mortgage market, there was no quantifiable difference between any two borrowers who were approved for loans. With credit scoring, the Wall Street firms assembling pools of mortgages could distinguish between a borrower with a very good score (750, as measured by the popular FICO system) and one with a more doubtful score (650).

Using CDOs, Wall Street firms were able to provide major institutional investors with insulation from default risk by concentrating that risk in other sub-securities (“tranches”) that were sold to investors who were more tolerant of risk. In fact, these basic CDOs were enhanced by other exotic mechanisms, such as credit default swaps, that reallocated mortgage default risk to institutions in which hardly any observer expected to find it, including AIG Insurance.

There was moral hazard in the mortgage securities market, as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae sought profits and growth on behalf of shareholders, but investors in their securities expected (correctly, as it turned out) that the government would protect them against losses. Years before the crisis, critics grumbled that the mortgage giants exemplified privatized profits and socialized risks.6

There was cognitive failure in the assessment of default risk. Assembling CDOs and other exotic instruments required sophisticated statistical modeling. The most important driver of expectations for mortgage defaults is the path for house prices, and the steep, broad-based decline in home prices that took place in 2006-2009 was outside the range that some modelers allowed for.

Another source of cognitive failure is the “suits/geeks” divide. In many firms, the financial engineers (“geeks) understood the risks of mortgage-related securities fairly well, but their conclusions did not make their way to the senior management level (“suits”).

There was policy failure on the part of bank regulators. Their previous adverse experience was with the Savings and Loan Crisis, in which firms that originated and retained mortgages went bankrupt in large numbers. This caused bank regulators to believe that mortgage securitization, which took risk off the books of depository institutions, would be safer for the financial system. For the purpose of assessing capital requirements for banks, regulators assigned a weight of 100 percent to mortgages originated and held by the bank, but assigned a weight of only 20 percent to the bank’s holdings of mortgage securities issued by Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, or Ginnie Mae. This meant that banks needed to hold much more capital to hold mortgages than to hold mortgage-related securities; that naturally steered them toward the latter.

In 2001, regulators broadened the low-risk umbrella to include AAA-rated and AA-rated tranches of private-label CDOs. This ruling helped to generate a flood of PLMS, many of them backed by sub-prime mortgage loans.7

By using bond ratings as a key determinant of capital requirements, the regulators effectively put the bond rating agencies at the center of the process of creating private-label CDOs. The rating agencies immediately became subject to both moral hazard and cognitive failure. The moral hazard came from the fact that the rating agencies were paid by the issuers of securities, who wanted the most generous ratings possible, rather than being paid by the regulators, who needed more rigorous ratings. The cognitive failure came from the fact that that models that the rating agencies used gave too little weight to potential scenarios of broad-based declines in house prices. Moreover, the banks that bought the securities were happy to see them rated AAA because the high ratings made the securities eligible for lower capital requirements on the part of the banks. Both sides, therefore, buyers and sellers, had bad incentives.

There was policy failure on the part of Congress. Officials in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations were unhappy with the risk that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae represented to taxpayers. But Congress balked at any attempt to tighten regulation of the safety and soundness of those firms.8

The Inter-bank Lending Market

There are a number of mechanisms through which financial institutions make short-term loans to one another. In the United States, banks use the Federal Funds market to manage short-term fluctuations in reserves. Internationally, banks lend in what is known as the LIBOR market.

One of the least known and most important markets is for “repo,” which is short for “repurchase agreement.” As first developed, the repo market was used by government bond dealers to finance inventories of securities, just as an automobile dealer might finance an inventory of cars. A money-market fund might lend money for one day or one week to a bond dealer, with the loan collateralized by a low-risk long-term security.

In the years leading up to the crisis, some dealers were financing low-risk mortgage-related securities in the repo market. But when some of these securities turned out to be subject to price declines that took them out of the “low-risk” category, participants in the repo market began to worry about all repo collateral. Repo lending offers very low profit margins, and if an investor has to be very discriminating about the collateral backing a repo loan, it can seem preferable to back out of repo lending altogether. This, indeed, is what happened, in what economist Gary Gorton and others called a “run on repo.”9

Another element of institutional panic was “collateral calls” involving derivative financial instruments. Derivatives, such as credit default swaps, are like side bets. The buyer of a credit default swap is betting that a particular debt instrument will default. The seller of a credit default swap is betting the opposite.

In the case of mortgage-related securities, the probability of default seemed low prior to the crisis. Sometimes, buyers of credit default swaps were merely satisfying the technical requirements to record the underlying securities as AAA-rated. They could do this if they obtained a credit default swap from an institution that was itself AAA-rated. AIG was an insurance company that saw an opportunity to take advantage of its AAA rating to sell credit default swaps on mortgage-related securities. AIG collected fees, and its Financial Products division calculated that the probability of default was essentially zero. The fees earned on each transaction were low, but the overall profit was high because of the enormous volume. AIG’s credit default swaps were a major element in the expansion of shadow banking by non-bank financial institutions during the run-up to the crisis.

Late in 2005, AIG abruptly stopped writing credit default swaps, in part because its own rating had been downgraded below AAA earlier in the year for unrelated reasons. By the time AIG stopped selling credit default swaps on mortgage-related securities, it had outstanding obligations on 80 billion of underlying securities and was earning 1 billion a year in fees.10

Because AIG no longer had its AAA rating and because the underlying mortgage securities, while not in default, were increasingly shaky, provisions in the contracts that AIG had written allowed the buyers of credit default swaps to require AIG to provide protection in the form of low-risk securities posted as collateral. These “collateral calls” were like a margin call that a stock broker will make on an investor who has borrowed money to buy stock that subsequently declines in value. In effect, collateral calls were a run on AIG’s shadow bank.

These collateral calls were made when the crisis in the inter-bank lending market was near its height in the summer of 2008 and banks were hoarding low-risk securities. In fact, the shortage of low-risk securities may have motivated some of the collateral calls, as institutions like Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs sought ways to ease their own liquidity problems. In any event, AIG could not raise enough short-term funds to meet its collateral calls without trying to dump long-term securities into a market that had little depth to absorb them. It turned to Federal authorities for a bailout, which was arranged and creatively backed by the Federal Reserve, but at the cost of reducing the value of shares in AIG.

With repos and derivatives, there was moral hazard in that the traders and executives of the narrow units that engaged in exotic transactions were able to claim large bonuses on the basis of short-term profits. But the adverse long-term consequences were spread to the rest of the firm and, ultimately, to taxpayers.

There was cognitive failure in that the collateral calls were an unanticipated risk of the derivatives business. The financial engineers focused on the (remote) chances of default on the underlying securities, not on the intermediate stress that might emerge from collateral calls.

There was policy failure when Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. This legislation specified that derivatives would not be regulated by either of the agencies with the staff most qualified to understand them. Rather than require oversight by the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (which regulated market-traded derivatives), Congress decreed that the regulator responsible for overseeing each firm would evaluate its derivative position. The logic was that a bank that was using derivatives to hedge other transactions should have its derivative position evaluated in a larger context. But, as it happened, the insurance and bank regulators who ended up with this responsibility were not equipped to see the dangers at firms such as AIG.

There was also policy failure in that officials approved of securitization that transferred risk out of the regulated banking sector. While Federal Reserve Officials were praising the risk management of commercial banks,11risk was accumulating in the shadow banking sector (non-bank institutions in the financial system), including AIG insurance, money market funds, Wall Street firms such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, and major foreign banks. When problems in the shadow banking sector contributed to the freeze in inter-bank lending and in the market for asset-backed commercial paper, policy makers felt compelled to extend bailouts to satisfy the needs of these non-bank institutions for liquid assets.

Conclusion

In terms of the fire metaphor suggested earlier, in hindsight, we can see that the markets for housing, sub-prime mortgages, mortgage-related securities, and inter-bank lending were all highly flammable just prior to the crisis. Moral hazard, cognitive failures, and policy failures all contributed the combustible mix.

The crisis also reflects a failure of the economics profession. A few economists, most notably Robert Shiller,12warned that the housing market was inflated, as indicated by ratios of prices to rents that were high by historical standards. Also, when risk-based capital regulation was proposed in the wake of the Savings and Loan Crisis and the Latin American debt crisis, a group of economists known as the Shadow Regulatory Committee warned that these regulations could be manipulated. They recommended, instead, greater use of senior subordinated debt at regulated financial institutions.13Many economists warned about the incentives for risk-taking at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.14

But even these economists failed to anticipate the 2008 crisis, in large part because economists did not take note of the complex mortgage-related securities and derivative instruments that had been developed. Economists have a strong preference for parsimonious models, and they look at financial markets through a lens that includes only a few types of simple assets, such as government bonds and corporate stock. This approach ignores even the repo market, which has been important in the financial system for over 40 years, and, of course, it omits CDOs, credit default swaps and other, more recent innovations.

Financial intermediaries do not produce tangible output that can be measured and counted. Instead, they provide intangible benefits that economists have never clearly articulated. The economics profession has a long way to go to catch up with modern finance.


About the Author

Arnold Kling was an economist with the Federal Reserve Board and with the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation before launching one of the first Web-based businesses in 1994.  His most recent books areSpecialization and Trade and The Three Languages of Politics. He earned his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Footnotes

1

“A desperate plea – then race for a deal before ‘sucker goes down’” The Guardian, September 26, 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/27/wallstreet.useconomy1

 

2

The report and dissents of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission can be found at https://fcic.law.stanford.edu/

3

See Stefania Albanesi, Giacomo De Giorgi, and Jaromir Nosal 2017, “Credit Growth and the Financial Crisis: A New Narrative” NBER working paper no. 23740. http://www.nber.org/papers/w23740

 

4

Karl E. Case and Robert J. Shiller 2003, “Is there a Bubble in the Housing Market?” Cowles Foundation Paper 1089 http://www.econ.yale.edu/shiller/pubs/p1089.pdf

 

5

Edward M. Gramlich 2004, “Subprime Mortgage Lending: Benefits, Costs, and Challenges,” Federal Reserve Board speeches. https://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/speeches/2004/20040521/

 

6

For example, in 1999, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said in a speech, “Debates about systemic risk should also now include government-sponsored enterprises.” See Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera 2010, All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis Portfolio/Penguin Press. The authors write that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was also, like Summers, disturbed by the moral hazard inherent in the GSEs.

 

7

Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus 2013, Engineering the Financial Crisis: Systemic Risk and the Failure of Regulation, University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

8

See McLean and Nocera, All the Devils are Here

 

9

Gary Gorton, Toomas Laarits, and Andrew Metrick 2017, “The Run on Repo and the Fed’s Response,” Stanford working paper. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/sites/gsb/files/fin_11_17_gorton.pdf

 

10

Talking Points Memo 2009, “The Rise and Fall of AIG’s Financial Products Unit” https://talkingpointsmemo.com/muckraker/the-rise-and-fall-of-aig-s-financial-products-unit

 

11

Chairman Ben S. Bernanke 2006, “Modern Risk Management and Banking Supervision,” Federal Reserve Board speeches. https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20060612a.htm

 

12

National Public Radio 2005, “Yale Professor Predicts Housing ’Bubble’ Will Burst” https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId4679264

 

13

Shadow Financial Regulatory Committee 2001, “The Basel Committee’s Revised Capital Accord Proposal” https://www.bis.org/bcbs/ca/shfirect.pdf

14

See the discussion in Viral V. Acharya, Matthew Richardson, Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh and Lawrence J. White 2011, Guaranteed to Fail: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Debacle of Mortgage Finance, Princeton University Press.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

CEE September 18, 2018

Christopher Sims

 

Christopher Sims was awarded, along with Thomas Sargent, the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. The Nobel committee cited their “empirical research on cause and effect in the macroeconomy.” The economists who spoke at the press conference announcing the award emphasized Sargent’s and Sims’ analysis of role of people’s expectations.

One of Sims’s earliest famous contributions was his work on money-income causality, which was cited by the Nobel committee. Money and income move together, but which causes which? Milton Friedman argued that changes in the money supply caused changes in income, noting that the supply of money often rises before income rises. Keynesians such as James Tobin argued that changes in income caused changes in the amount of money. Money seems to move first, but causality, said Tobin and others, still goes the other way: people hold more money when they expect income to rise in the future.

Which view is true? In 1972 Sims applied Clive Granger’s econometric test of causality. On Granger’s definition one variable is said to cause another variable if knowledge of the past values of the possibly causal variable helps to forecast the effect variable over and above the knowledge of the history of the effect variable itself. Implementing a test of this incremental predictability, Sims concluded “[T]he hypothesis that causality is unidirectional from money to income [Friedman’s view] agrees with the postwar U.S. data, whereas the hypothesis that causality is unidirectional from income to money [Tobin’s view] is rejected.”

Sims’s influential article “Macroeconomics and Reality” was a criticism of both the usual econometric interpretation of large-scale Keynesian econometric models and ofRobert Lucas’s influential earlier criticism of these Keynesian models (the so-called Lucas critique). Keynesian econometricians had claimed that with sufficiently accurate theoretical assumptions about the structure of the economy, correlations among the macroeconomic variables could be used to measure the strengths of various structural connections in the economy. Sims argued that there was no basis for thinking that these theoretical assumptions were sufficiently accurate. Such so-called “identifying assumptions” were, Sims said, literally “incredible.” Lucas, on the other hand, had not rejected the idea of such identification. Rather he had pointed out that, if people held “rational expectations” – that is, expectations that, though possibly incorrect, did not deviate on average from what actually occurs in a correctable, systematic manner – then failing to account for them would undermine the stability of the econometric estimates and render the macromodels useless for policy analysis. Lucas and his New Classical followers argued that in forming their expectations people take account of the rules implicitly followed by monetary and fiscal policymakers; and, unless those rules were integrated into the econometric model, every time the policymakers adopted a new policy (i.e., new rules), the estimates would shift in unpredictable ways.

While rejecting the structural interpretation of large-scale macromodels, Sims did not reject the models themselves, writing: “[T]here is no immediate prospect that large-scale macromodels will disappear from the scene, and for good reason: they are useful tools in forecasting and policy analysis.” Sims conceded that the Lucas critique was correct in those cases in which policy regimes truly changed. But he argued that such regime changes were rare and that most economic policy was concerned with the implementation of a particular policy regime. For that purpose, the large-scale macromodels could be helpful, since what was needed for forecasting was a model that captured the complex interrelationships among variables and not one that revealed the deeper structural connections.

In the same article, Sims proposed an alternative to large-scale macroeconomic models, the vector autoregression (or VAR). In Sims’s view, the VAR had the advantages of the earlier macromodels, in that it could capture the complex interactions among a relatively large number of variables needed for policy analysis and yet did not rely on as many questionable theoretical assumptions. With subsequent developments by Sims and others, the VAR became a major tool of empirical macroeconomic analysis.

Sims has also suggested that sticky prices are caused by “rational inattention,” an idea imported from electronic communications. Just as computers do not access information on the Internet infinitely fast (but rather, in bits per second), individual actors in an economy have only a finite ability to process information. This delay produces some sluggishness and randomness, and allows for more accurate forecasts than conventional models, in which people are assumed to be highly averse to change.

Sims’s recent work has focused on the fiscal theory of the price level, the view that inflation in the end is determined by fiscal problems—the overall amount of debt relative to the government’s ability to repay it—rather than by the split in government debt between base money and bonds. In 1999, Sims suggested that the fiscal foundations of the European Monetary Union were “precarious” and that a fiscal crisis in one country “would likely breed contagion effects in other countries.” The Greek financial crisis about a decade later seemed to confirm his prediction.

Christopher Sims earned his B.A. in mathematics in 1963 and his Ph.D. in economics in 1968, both from Harvard University. He taught at Harvard from 1968 to 1970, at the University of Minnesota from 1970 to 1990, at Yale University from 1990 to 1999, and at Princeton University from 1999 to the present. He has been a Fellow of the Econometric Society since 1974, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1988, a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1989, President of the Econometric Society (1995), and President of the American Economic Association (2012). He has been a Visiting Scholar for the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, New York, and Philadelphia off and on since 1994.


Selected Works

  1. . “Money, Income, and Causality.” American Economic Review 62: 4 (September): 540-552.

  2. . “Macroeconomics and Reality.” Econometrica 48: 1 (January): 1-48.

1990 (with James H. Stock and Mark W. Watson). “Inference in Linear Time Series Models with some Unit Roots.” Econometrica 58: 1 (January): 113-144.

  1. . “The Precarious Fiscal Foundations of EMU.” De Economist 147:4 (December): 415-436.

  2. . “Implications of Rational Inattention.” Journal of Monetary Economics 50: 3 (April): 665–690.

(0 COMMENTS)

CEE June 28, 2018

Gordon Tullock

Gordon tullock

Gordon Tullock, along with his colleague James M. Buchanan, was a founder of the School of Public Choice. Among his contributions to public choice were his study of bureaucracy, his early insights on rent seeking, his study of political revolutions, his analysis of dictatorships, and his analysis of incentives and outcomes in foreign policy. Tullock also contributed to the study of optimal organization of research, was a strong critic of common law, and did work on evolutionary biology. He was arguably one of the ten or so most influential economists of the last half of the twentieth century. Many economists believe that Tullock deserved to share Buchanan’s 1986 Nobel Prize or even deserved a Nobel Prize on his own.

One of Tullock’s early contributions to public choice was The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, co-authored with Buchanan in 1962. In that path-breaking book, the authors assume that people seek their own interests in the political system and then consider the results of various rules and political structures. One can think of their book as a political economist’s version of Montesquieu.

One of the most masterful sections of The Calculus of Consent is the chapter in which the authors, using a model formulated by Tullock, consider what good decision rules would be for agreeing to have someone in government make a decision for the collective. An individual realizes that if only one person’s consent is required, and he is not that person, he could have huge costs imposed on him. Requiring more people’s consent in order for government to take action reduces the probability that that individual will be hurt. But as the number of people required to agree rises, the decision costs rise. In the extreme, if unanimity is required, people can game the system and hold out for a disproportionate share of benefits before they give their consent. The authors show that the individual’s preferred rule would be one by which the costs imposed on him plus the decision costs are at a minimum. That preferred rule would vary from person to person. But, they note, it would be highly improbable that the optimal decision rule would be one that requires a simple majority. They write, “On balance, 51 percent of the voting population would not seem to be much preferable to 49 percent.” They suggest further that the optimal rule would depend on the issues at stake. Because, they note, legislative action may “produce severe capital losses or lucrative capital gains” for various groups, the rational person, not knowing his own future position, might well want strong restraints on the exercise of legislative power.

Tullock’s part of The Calculus of Consent was a natural outgrowth of an unpublished manuscript written in the 1950s that later became his 1965 book, The Politics of Bureaucracy. Buchanan, reminiscing about that book, summed up Tullock’s approach and the book’s significance:

The substantive contribution in the manuscript was centered on the hypothesis that, regardless of role, the individual bureaucrat responds to the rewards and punishments that he confronts. This straightforward, and now so simple, hypothesis turned the whole post-Weberian quasi-normative approach to bureaucracy on its head. . . . The economic theory of bureaucracy was born.1

Buchanan noted in his reminiscence that Tullock’s “fascinating analysis” was “almost totally buried in an irritating personal narrative account of Tullock’s nine-year experience in the foreign service hierarchy.” Buchanan continued: “Then, as now, Tullock’s work was marked by his apparent inability to separate analytical exposition from personal anecdote.” Translation: Tullock learned from his experiences. As a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department for nine years Tullock learned, up close and “personal,” how dysfunctional bureaucracy can be. In a later reminiscence, Tullock concluded:

A 90 per cent cut-back on our Foreign Service would save money without really damaging our international relations or stature.2

Tullock made many other contributions in considering incentives within the political system. Particularly noteworthy was his work on political revolutions and on dictatorships.

Consider, first, political revolutions. Any one person’s decision to participate in a revolution, Tullock noted, does not much affect the probability that the revolution will succeed. Therefore, each person’s actions do not much affect his expected benefits from revolution. On the other hand, a ruthless head of government can individualize the costs by heavily punishing those who participate in a revolution. So anyone contemplating participating in a revolution will be comparing heavy individual costs with small benefits that are simply his pro rata share of the overall benefits. Therefore, argued Tullock, for people to participate, they must expect some large benefits that are tied to their own participation, such as a job in the new government. That would explain an empirical regularity that Tullock noted—namely that “in most revolutions, the people who overthrow the existing government were high officials in that government before the revolution.”

This thinking carried over to his work on autocracy. In Autocracy, Tullock pointed out that in most societies at most times, governments were not democratically elected but were autocracies: they were dictatorships or kingdoms. For that reason, he argued, analysts should do more to understand them. Tullock’s book was his attempt to get the discussion started. In a chapter titled “Coups and Their Prevention,” Tullock argued that one of the autocrat’s main challenges is to survive in office. He wrote: “The dictator lives continuously under the Sword of Damocles and equally continuously worries about the thickness of the thread.” Tullock pointed out that a dictator needs his countrymen to believe not that he is good, just, or ordained by God, but that those who try to overthrow him will fail.”

Among modern economists, Tullock was the earliest discoverer of the concept of “rent seeking,” although he did not call it that. Before his work, the usual measure of the deadweight loss from monopoly was the part of the loss in consumer surplus that did not increase producer surplus for the monopolist. Consumer surplus is the maximum amount that consumers are willing to pay minus the amount they actually pay; producer surplus, also called “economic rent,” is the amount that producers get minus the minimum amount for which they would be willing to produce. Harberger3 had estimated that for the U.S. economy in the 1950s, that loss was very low, on the order of 0.1 percent of Gross National Product. In “The Welfare Cost of Tariffs, Monopolies, and Theft,” Tullock argued that this method understated the loss from monopoly because it did not take account of the investment of the monopolist—and of others trying to be monopolists—in becoming monopolists. These investments in monopoly are a loss to the economy. Tullock also pointed out that those who seek tariffs invest in getting those tariffs, and so the standard measure of the loss from tariffs understated the loss. His analysis, as the tariff example illustrates, applies more to firms seeking special privileges from government than to private attempts to monopolize via the free market because private attempts often lead, as if by an invisible hand, to increased competition.”

One of Tullock’s most important insights in public choice was in a short article in 1975 titled “The Transitional Gains Trap.” He noted that even though rent seeking often leads to big gains for the rent seekers, those gains are capitalized in asset prices, which means that buyers of the assets make a normal return on the asset. So, for example, if the government requires the use of ethanol in gasoline, owners of land on which corn is grown will find that their land is worth more because of the regulatory requirement. (Ethanol in the United States is produced from corn.) They gain when the regulation is first imposed. But when they sell the land, the new owner pays a price equal to the present value of the stream of the net profits from the land. So the new owner doesn’t get a supra-normal rate of return from the land. In other words, the owner at the time that the regulation was imposed got “transitional gains,” but the new owner does not. This means that the new owner will suffer a capital loss if the regulation is removed and will fight hard to keep the regulation in place, arguing, correctly, that he paid for those gains. That makes repealing the regulation more difficult than otherwise. Tullock notes that, therefore, we should try hard to avoid getting into these traps because they are hard to get out of.

Tullock was one of the few public choice economists to apply his tools to foreign policy. In Open Secrets of American Foreign Policy, he takes a hard-headed look at U.S. foreign policy rather than the romantic “the United States is the good guys” view that so many Americans take. For example, he wrote of the U.S. government’s bombing of Serbia under President Bill Clinton:

[T]he bombing campaign was a clear-cut violation of the United Nations Charter and hence, should be regarded as a war crime. It involved the use of military forces without the sanction of the Security Council and without any colorable claim of self-defense. Of course, it was not a first—we [the U.S. government] had done the same thing in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama.

Possibly Tullock’s most underappreciated contributions were in the area of methodology and the economics of research. About a decade after spending six months with philosopher Karl Popper at the Center for Advanced Studies in Palo Alto, Tullock published The Organization of Inquiry. In it, he considered why scientific discovery in both the hard sciences and economics works so well without any central planner, and he argued that centralized funding by government would slow progress. After arguing that applied science is generally more valuable than pure science, Tullock wrote:

Nor is there any real justification for the general tendency to consider pure research as somehow higher and better than applied research. It is certainly more pleasant to engage in research in fields that strike you as interesting than to confine yourself to fields which are likely to be profitable, but there is no reason why the person choosing the more pleasant type of research should be considered more noble.4

In Tullock’s view, a system of prizes for important discoveries would be an efficient way of achieving important breakthroughs. He wrote:

As an extreme example, surely offering a reward of 1 billion for the first successful ICBM would have resulted in both a large saving of money for the government and much faster production of this weapon.5

Tullock was born in Rockford, Illinois and was an undergrad at the University of Chicago from 1940 to 1943. His time there was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. During his time at Chicago, though, he completed a one-semester course in economics taught by Henry Simons. After the war, he returned to the University of Chicago Law School, where he completed the J.D. degree in 1947. He was briefly with a law firm in 1947 before going into the Foreign Service, where he worked for nine years. He was an economics professor at the University of South Carolina (1959-1962), the University of Virginia (1962-1967), Rice University (1968-1969), the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (1968-1983), George Mason University (1983-1987), the University of Arizona (1987-1999), and again at George Mason University (1999-2008). In 1966, he started the journal Papers in Non-Market Decision Making, which, in 1969, was renamed Public Choice.


Selected Works

 

  1. . The Calculus of Consent. (Co-authored with James M. Buchanan.) Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

  2. . The Politics of Bureaucracy. Public Affairs Press. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press.

  3. . The Organization of Inquiry. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

  4. . “The Welfare Costs of Tariffs, Monopolies, and Theft,” Western Economic Journal, 5:3 (June): 224-232.

  5. . Toward a Mathematics of Politics. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

  6. . “The Paradox of Revolution.” Public Choice. Vol. 11. Fall: 89-99.

1975: “The Transitional Gains Trap.” Bell Journal of Economics, 6:2 (Autumn): 671-678.

1987: Autocracy. Hingham, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

  1. . Open Secrets of American Foreign Policy. New Jersey: World Scientific Publishing Co.

 


Footnotes

James M. Buchanan. 1987. The qualities of a natural economist. In Charles K. Rowley, (Ed.) (1987). Democracy and public choice. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 9-19.

 

Gordon Tullock. 2009. Memories of an unexciting life. Unfinished and unpublished manuscript. Tucson, 2009. Quoted in Charles K. Rowley and Daniel Houser. “The Life and Times of Gordon Tullock.” 2011. George Mason University. Department of Economics. Paper No. 11-56. December 20.

 

Arnold C. Harberger. 1954 “Monopoly and Resource Allocation.” American Economic Review. 44(2): 77-87.

 

Tullock. 1966. P. 14.

 

Tullock. 1966. P. 168.

 

(0 COMMENTS)

CEE February 5, 2018

Division of Labor

Division of labor combines specialization and the partition of a complex production task into several, or many, sub-tasks. Its importance in economics lies in the fact that a given number of workers can produce far more output using division of labor compared to the same number of workers each working alone. Interestingly, this is true even if those working alone are expert artisans. The production increase has several causes. According to Adam Smith, these include increased dexterity from learning, innovations in tool design and use as the steps are defined more clearly, and savings in wasted motion changing from one task to another.

Though the scientific understanding of the importance of division of labor is comparatively recent, the effects can be seen in most of human history. It would seem that exchange can arise only from differences in taste or circumstance. But division of labor implies that this is not true. In fact, even a society of perfect clones would develop exchange, because specialization alone is enough to reward advances such as currency, accounting, and other features of market economies.

In the early 1800s, David Ricardo developed a theory of comparative advantage as an explanation for the origins of trade. And this explanation has substantial power, particularly in a pre-industrial world. Assume, for example, that England is suited to produce wool, while Portugal is suited to produce wine. If each nation specializes, then total consumption in the world, and in each nation, is expanded. Interestingly, this is still true if one nation is better at producing both commodities: even the less productive nation benefits from specialization and trade.

Here are the 10 latest posts from Econlib.

Econlib February 27, 2020

A First-Rate ERP

When I was a senior economist for health and energy policy with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, I wrote parts of chapters in the 1983 and 1984 Economic Report of the President (ERP.) And so, like many former economists in that job, whether in a Republican or Democratic administration, I tend to read each year’s Economic Report carefully. I found this year’s report particularly good. (Although authors are not listed individually, I presume one of them is Joshua Rauh, a Hoover colleague who is the CEA’s Principal Chief Economist.)

I should add that I tend to judge an ERP generously. The reason is that the authors always need to pay attention to the views of their big boss, the U.S. president, and of their colleagues in other agencies of the federal government. So you won’t find this year’s Report being critical of Donald Trump’s policies on trade or immigration, two areas where he favors much more regulation and taxation than the median economist. But the economists who wrote the Report don’t blow kisses at those policies either. And in one footnote, to their credit, they take a risk by pointing out that Trump’s tariffs in 2018 and 2019 imposed a deadweight loss on the U.S. economy of 0.4 percent of GDP per year.

Where the Report’s authors can say good things about Trump’s economic policies and their effects, though, they do. And it turns out there are many good things to say: on the effects of the 2017 tax cut, deregulation, economic growth, unemployment, growth of real wages, increases in household income, and the shale oil revolution. They also have interesting sections on health insurance and health care, and on the threats to growth from too-vigorous antitrust enforcement, the opioid crisis, and housing unaffordability caused by regulation. These last I will deal with in a follow-on article.

These are the opening 3 paragraphs of my latest Hoover article, “A First-Rate Economic Report – I,” February 26, 2020.

Some fantastic data on wages and inequality:

There’s other good news for workers. Whereas the CBO had projected in 2016 that the number of jobs would increase by only 1.9 million by the end of 2019, job growth blew past that projection early. By the end of December, the number of jobs had grown by a whopping 7 million.

Why the big difference? The Report notes that the CBO had assumed that most of the job growth would be from the ranks of the officially unemployed (those who were out of work and looking for work) and little from people who were not in the labor force. But at least for the fourth quarter of 2019, the authors note, 74.2 percent of people getting jobs were those who entered the labor force rather than those previously unemployed. The other nice surprise was the unemployment rate. Whereas the CBO and the Federal Reserve had projected an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent or higher by the end of 2019, it had actually fallen by a whole percentage point more, to 3.5 percent. In 2000, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) started collecting data on job openings and compared them to the number of unemployed workers. In every month since then, up to early 2018, the number of unemployed people exceeded the number of job openings. But starting in early 2018, the relationship reversed. For the first time the number of job openings exceeded the number of people who were unemployed and, notes the Report, stayed that way for the next 20 months. A BLS news release from February 11 of this year shows that the streak has now extended to 22 months.

Because wages for workers at the low end of the wage scale have risen by a higher percentage than wages for workers at the high end, income inequality has fallen. Economists often use the Gini coefficient as a measure of income inequality: if all incomes are equal the Gini is 0; if one household has all the income, the Gini is 1. The Report mentions that the Gini coefficient has fallen, but, unfortunately, does not say by how much. A check of their source, a 2019 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that it fell from 0.471 in 2017 to 0.464 in 2018, a drop of 1.5 percent.

Make sure you also read the really good news on the shale revolution and its good effects, including on CO2. I do criticize the authors’ idea that a good effect of becoming more energy independent is that there will be fewer constraints on U.S. foreign policy. There will be, but I don’t think that’s necessarily good.

(0 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 27, 2020

Caplan-Weinersmith Mutual Interview

Here is an all-new pair of interviews with me and Zach Weinersmith.  First, I interview him.  Then, he interviews me.  Very fun!

(0 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 27, 2020

Three Cheers for the Coronavirus

I don’t propose to cheer for the death, financial loss, or other impairment of anybody (sorry if I weep less for rulers), but I do find a silver lining in three benefits of the current Covid-19 epidemic or pandemic. These benefits are not net benefits and certainly not net benefits for everybody: only public goods, by definition, provide net benefits to everybody.

First, the epidemic illustrates the benefits of free speech, even for a tyrant such as president Xi Jinping and the Chinese state. The Economist published an obituary of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan ophthalmologist who tried to alert people to the new epidemic and later caught the virus and died (“Li Wenliang Died on February 7th,” February 13, 2020). It is worth reflecting on what happened just before he became ill:

[On] January 3rd he was summoned to the police station. There he was accused of spreading rumours and subverting the social order. He then had to give written answers to two questions: in future, could he stop his illegal activities? “I can,” he wrote, and put his thumbprint, in red ink, on his answer. Did he understand that if he went on, he would be punished under the law? “I understand,” he wrote, and supplied another thumbprint.

As I previously argued on this blog, free speech is often useful for an autocrat because independent news and opinions can warn him of what his minions don’t know or are scared to reveal (“The Autocrat and the Free Press: A Model,” October 25, 2019).

Second, the epidemic shows that there is no reason to fear economic competition from a planned economy, notwithstanding Donald Trump’s or Peter Navarro’s scaremongering. Attorney General Bill Barr floated the idea of creating a large state corporation by purchasing private producers of communications equipment in order to compete against Huawey. In other words, let’s become socialist in order not to be overtaken by socialist competition! Larry Kudlow, one of the very few economists around the president, declared, in one of his most daring defenses of capitalism thus far, that the administration was not considering this plan. (See Eric Boehm, “Corporate Socialism? Bill Barr’s Suggestion That the U.S. Should Buy Nokia or Ericsson To Counter China Is a Terrible Idea,” Reason Magazine, February 12, 2010.) The management of the epidemic by the Chinese government, which, like all dirigiste governments, is much better at coercion than at entrepreneurship and efficiency, might help counter these fears.

Third, the epidemic shows the benefits of economic growth and international trade. By strangling Chinese growth (“deepening economic damage,” says the Wall Street Journalof yesterday) and perhaps also, if it becomes a pandemic, economic growth in other countries, and by slowing down international trade, the coronavirus will give a hand to the autarkic and zero-sum-game vision of the US administration. No need for a trade war if a pandemic does the job. Trump, of course, will claim that the economic problems he has created were instead caused by the epidemic: untruth does not require coherence. Let’s hope that many people will see that the lessons of the epidemic are quite different.

(2 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 27, 2020

Fiscal stimulus doesn’t require big government or budget deficits

In the Keynesian model, fiscal stimulus is measured by the change in the size of the budget deficit, or perhaps the change in the cyclically adjusted budget deficit. In that model, a shrinking budget surplus is every bit as expansionary as an increasing budget deficit.  Because it has nothing to do with “big government”, Keynesianism is neither “liberal” nor “conservative”.

Hong Kong provides an interesting example.  A recent Bloomberg article shows the expected effect of a recent decision to give each adult citizen a 10,000 (HK) cash payment. That’s about 1284 US dollars, and thus is somewhat larger than the (ineffective) Bush tax cut of 2008.

Hong Kong had no budget deficits during 2005-19.  Notice that the budget surplus shrank dramatically during the recession of 2009, by roughly 6% or 7% of GDP.  That’s comparable (as a share of GDP), to the change in the US budget deficit between 2008 and 2009.  Thus fiscal stimulus doesn’t require either “big government” or budget deficits.  Indeed, Hong Kong had neither in 2009.  This is why even relatively conservative economists (like Greg Mankiw) can be Keynesians.

Fiscal stimulus in Hong Kong may have been even more effective than in the US, as the HK dollar’s peg to the US dollar means there is unlikely to be monetary offset. Even so, the recent Hong Kong tax rebate is probably not the best approach to stimulus. Perhaps a better justification for this giveaway is egalitarianism, as Hong Kong is a deeply unequal society where government policies favoring big property developers make the inequality even worse.

(2 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 27, 2020

Friedman, Heller, and the Audience

Here’s an interesting discussion between Keynesian Walter Heller and monetarist Milton Friedman in 1978. It was one of the early productions of Bob Chitester who, in the next year, put together the famous PBS series “Free to Choose.” The moderator, Marina von Neumman Whitman, does a good job. I found her more impressive on this show than I did when she was one of my bosses at the Council of Economic Advisers in 1973, when I was a summer intern.

Some highlights:

27:45: Heller criticizes the minimum wage, which was then 2.65 an hour.

34:40: A young audience member Laura Tyson, later the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under Bill Clinton, asks a question from the audience.

45:30: Heller says “Milton’s quite right.”

46:20: Heller calls for taxes on pollution rather than regulation, and Friedman agrees. Then Marina makes a great point about valuing human life. (She does get the “dismal science” point wrong, but the reality is that we didn’t know at the time the source of that term.)

53:20: Marina really nicely addresses the “you’ve got the statistics but what about real people?” charge that economists often get. Indeed, I think her answer, including her example, is one of the nicest statements I’ve seen on this.

There’s a point in the discussion, but I forgot to write down the time, at which Heller notes a discussion with a smaller group years earlier where he and Friedman agreed on a number of policy issues.

By the way, as I document in this entry in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Heller wrote some great analysis of the German economic miracle in the late 1940s. Here’s the bio of Heller in the Encyclopedia. He died way too soon.

Also, here’s an earlier post that contains some fond reminiscences of Heller, whom I never met but talked to on the phone and found to be a real gentleman. My reminiscences of Milton Friedman are too numerous to list. Here’s what I got with a search.

Note: The picture above is of Friedman and Heller at their 1968 debate, not one of them in the 1978 video.

(0 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 26, 2020

Steyn on Our EU Bet

I missed Mark Steyn’s take on our EU bet (published on January 6, 2020), but here it is.  Quite admirable; Steyn avoids any hint of “I really won” or “This proves nothing.”  Instead:

So here we are on January 1st 2020. Bryan Caplan has now announced:

Since the UK remains in the EU today, it has clearly not officially withdrawn yet. End of story.

He is quite right. As of today, the United Kingdom is a (non-participatory) member of the EU. It will supposedly “officially withdraw” from the EU on January 31st – although, after the last three-and-a-half years, one would be unwise to discount yet another desperate rearguard action from the obstructionists…

After the invocation of Article 50, I chanced to be on Stuart Varney’s Fox Business show and, contemplating my C-note, I sang, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”. Instead, Professor Caplan has cleaned me out. On the next Heathrow-Dublin shuttle I shall eschew the bubbly. I have contacted him to arrange delivery of the hundred dollars he won fair and square.

Mr Caplan won in a larger sense, too. As he puts it:

Yes, I did foresee that any attempt to leave the EU would be subject to a long series of obstacles, each of which could delay or even derail the exit process.

These “obstacles” were entirely of the Remoaners’ making. Britain, over the last century-and-a-half, has written more constitutions of more countries than anybody on the planet.

Further discussion:

By comparison with Mr Caplan, I was naïve. I assumed the bet was about the disposition of the polity. It was not inconceivable in 2008 to imagine the UK or indeed other EU member states voting to leave the Union – if they were given the opportunity. Of course, precisely for that reason, no one wanted to give them that opportunity: in the 2016 election, every party other than Farage’s was in favor of the EU; you could be a Tory, a socialist, a Scots nationalist, an Irish republican – and you were represented in Parliament by a Remain party. It’s like illegal immigration in the US, where pre-Trump the electorate had a choice between a de facto open-borders party and a Chamber of Commerce “comprehensive immigration reform” party, both of which lead to the exact same destination. In self-governing societies, such a gulf becomes untenable. My view was that, by 2020, popular antipathy to the EU would find political expression.

Mr Caplan was savvier. He’d already galloped on to the next phase: So what if it did? He correctly saw that the PermaState would subject the will of the people to, as he puts it, “a long series of obstacles”. In that sense, his bet of 2008 anticipated the defining feature of what’s shaping up to be the Post-Democratic Age: as I put it to Tucker a while back re Trump, the elites are revolting against the masses. You can vote outside the acceptable parameters, but you’ll just be walled up in the Hotel Brexifornia: You can check “Out” any time you like, but you can never leave.

Steyn’s absurd claim about near-bipartisan elite support for open borders aside, my only substantive disagreement comes here:

Bryan Caplan is homo economicus, so he would probably prefer to characterize the above as the superior understanding of rational experts that the modern world is too complex and interconnected for anything so crude as the yes/no up/down votes of the masses. I don’t myself think that the world is particularly more complex than it was when Westminster presumed to introduce responsible government to Nova Scotia or India, or dissolve its Central African federation, or partition the United Kingdom itself. What’s changed, certainly by comparison with the chippy nationalism of the post-colonial era, is the rise of a globalist class ever more contemptuous of dissenting views.

On average, I do trust Western elites more than Western masses.  My main reason, though, is not that the modern world is too “complex” or “interconnected,” but that (a) economic freedom, personal freedom, and cosmopolitanism are Very Good Things, and (b) Western elites are at least less opposed to all three Very Good Things than the deeply authoritarian Western masses.  Back in 2012, I described the median American voter as a “moderate national socialist,” and subsequent events have reaffirmed my doleful perspective.

Contrary to Steyn, moreover, most members of the so-called “globalist class” are only modestly less nationalist than he is.  Read Paul Krugman on immigration, or Larry Summers on economic nationalism.  While they are indeed “contemptuous of dissenting views,” this is a contempt of small differencesSeriously. 

 

 

 

(6 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 25, 2020

Open Borders in the New Yorker

Zoey Poll has written my favorite review of Open Bordersin the latest issue of the New Yorker.   Why favorite?  Because the review is not only accurate and enthusiastic, but visually attentive: “The illustrations in “Open Borders” are playful, bright, and irreverent; their simple style evokes Caplan’s relentless optimism.”  As far as I know, no other reviewer pays so much attention to our imagery.  Examples:

What about poorer countries, with low returns on labor, from which immigrants would flow? Presumably, an open-border policy would lead to a mass exodus. And yet an illustrated version of Caplan, working as a Western Union teller, reassures these countries that they would be rewarded with compensatory, monumental remittances. Brain drain wouldn’t be an issue, since the total liberalization of movement would allow everyone—not just the highly skilled—to emigrate.

Caplan writes that a “ghost town,” in which a dwindling labor pool keeps wages high, is preferable to the “zombie” towns, which trap their residents in moribund economies, that are created by the current system. (A sign on a zombie-infested Main Street reads “brains 50% off!”)

Caplan imagines a debate with Milton Friedman, who once declared that free immigration and a welfare state couldn’t coëxist. Caplan, pictured alongside Friedman in a maternity ward, explains why the fact that some immigrants end up depending on social services is a weak argument: some native-born babies grow up to depend on social services, too, and yet no one argues that we ought to restrict reproduction.

Still, there are reasons not to discount open-border thinking as mere provocation, or to see it as an idea confined solely to libertarianism. Caplan argues that birthright citizenship is a lottery of opportunity—in an accompanying illustration, a gambler at an immigration slot machine hits the jackpot (“UA”)—and other thinkers agree.

Admittedly, Poll’s not pleased with all of our visuals, but I do stand by them.

And yet, when they aren’t harmlessly humorous—statistics floating in hot-air balloons; Americans eating “Conspicuous Pecansumption” ice cream—they tend to reduce their subjects to caricature. “Poor countries” are depicted using images of generic slums and anonymous, emaciated brown people;

Our Third World slums are hardly “generic”; virtually every one is based on reference photos of actual locations.  And their residents are hardly “anonymous”; check out the kids on p.4, or the migrants on p.11.  Zach strives to give even one-shot characters their humanity, and it shows.

a person who smuggles migrants in the desert is represented as an actual coyote, wearing sunglasses.

Guilty as charged.  The coyote-as-coyote doesn’t just get our point across; for anyone who grew up on Roadrunner cartoons, it’s funny.

At times, the images embrace stereotypes in glib ways: a Chinese couple running a restaurant stand in for high-skilled immigrants, and a pickup truck crossing the border is presumed to contain those who are low-skilled.

Actually, this page (p.72) shows the contrast between mid-skilled high-school graduates and low-skilled dropouts.  I chose the former image not only because this is a common job for first-generation Chinese immigrants, but because so many Chinese restaurants are a feast for the eyes.  (Comics geeks will also catch the homage to Herge’s The Blue Lotus).

At other times, perhaps intentionally, the figures are dissonantly cartoonish. It’s hard to reckon with a cartoon version of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned while fleeing Syria, lying face down on the beach. Caplan and Weinersmith may be trying to reach those who looked away from the original photo: elsewhere in the book, Caplan suggests that open borders would make poverty more visible. “Immigration restrictions hide even more poverty than they create,” he writes.

Zach and I heavily weighed whether to incorporate this tragic image.  I planned to show it almost unaltered, but Zach convinced me that it would be better to capture the spirit of the image with a silhouette.  And yes, we are trying to reach those who looked away from the original photo.

Reactions to a few other critical remarks:

Big businesses are notably absent from Caplan’s list of beneficiaries, although they would profit from an expanded labor pool, too. Partly for this reason, Charles Koch has come out in favor of open borders. (In 2015, Bernie Sanders characterized the idea as “a Koch brothers proposal” designed to “bring in people who will work for two or three dollars an hour.”)

I severely doubt that Charles Koch has ever argued that open borders is good “because it helps big business.”  And it’s hard to understand why immigration would be good for big business specifically, rather than business in general.  Indeed, the sensible partition would be between domestic businesses that benefit from extra labor supply, and foreign businesses that lose from reduced labor supply.  Literally speaking, of course, it is never “businesses” that prosper or suffer, but business owners, which includes virtually everyone with a retirement account.

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Caplan praised the Gulf states, such as Qatar, whose temporary-worker programs, which don’t offer paths to citizenship, have made them “more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth.” Such programs have attracted migrants—but they have also proved to be fertile ground for human-rights violations, including passport confiscation and physical abuse.

Such violations are obviously bad.  My point, however, is that they are far less bad overall than outright exclusion.  Due to immigration restrictions, would-be guest workers are in a tough spot: They can accept severe poverty at home, or take a small risk of violation at a much higher-paid job abroad.  The idea that guest workers are oblivious to such risks is fanciful; in the smartphone age, ugly news travels with light-speed from receiving to sending countries.  Indeed, it is worth pointing out that low-skilled workers often face severe human rights violations in their home countries.  Money aside, are you really sure that you’d rather be a Pakistani working in Pakistan than a Pakistani working in Qatar?

Poll also points out important benefits of open borders that Open Borders fails to discuss:

An open-borders system could likewise address the coming displacement of millions, by rising sea levels, droughts, fires, and storms. The Global North, which is responsible for the great majority of greenhouse-gas emissions, might consider the opening of borders a fair exchange for almost two centuries of pollution.

The New Yorker has never failed to cover one of my books, and I’ve always been pleased by the coverage.  I’ve never forgotten Louis Menand’s line that, “Caplan is the sort of economist (are there other sorts? there must be) who engages with the views of non-economists in the way a bulldozer would engage with a picket fence if a bulldozer could express glee.”  Poll’s coverage of Open Borders, however, pleases me most of all.  She didn’t just read carefully; she looked carefully.  This is exactly the kind of reaction I was shooting for when I wrote the book, sitting at this very desk.

 

(7 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 25, 2020

Profile in Liberty: Friedrich A. Hayek

The twentieth century witnessed the unparalleled expansion of government power over the lives and livelihoods of individuals. Much of this was the result of two devastating world wars and totalitarian ideologies that directly challenged individual liberty and the free institutions of the open society. Other forms of expansion in the provision of social welfare and the regulation of the economy, while more benign in their objectives, nevertheless posed significant challenges to personal freedom. Few individuals did more to both extend our understanding of the economic processes of the free society and alert us to the dangers inherent in the growth of political power than the Nobel laureate economist and social theorist Friedrich A. Hayek. In over half a century of writing and teaching, he showed why national socialism was the very antithesis of capitalism, why communism was an economic and political philosophy ultimately doomed to failure, and why we must be wary of government intervention if we are to preserve the freedoms that make democracy and prosperity possible.

In a life that spanned almost the entire twentieth century, he went from being dismissed, ridiculed, and ignored to being recognized and acclaimed as perhaps this century’s most significant social scientist and philosopher. To a remarkable degree, his story is the story of the twentieth century.

iframe width"500" height"375" src"https://www.youtube.com/embed/jTriOPvBh6o?featureoembed" frameborder"0" allow"accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen/iframe

Below are some prompts for further conversation:

 

  1. Why was socialism (i.e., the Fabian version) initially so appealing to Hayek?

 

  1. Briefly describe the key ideas that appeared in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, as well as how this affected Hayek during his time at Vienna.

 

  1. What groundbreaking insight was introduced in Menger’s Principles of Economics, and how did this influence Hayek?

 

  1. What was the principle thesis of Mises’ Socialism? How did Hayek’s relationship with Mises direct his work?

 

  1. What was Hayek’s purpose in his first book, Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle?

 

  1. Why was Lionel Robbin’s invitation to Hayek to join the London School of Economics so pivotal in Hayek’s career? (Hint: include some discussion of “spontaneous order”.)

 

  1. Explain why Hayek’s theories about knowledge were so revolutionary. (Hint: include a discussion of how Hayek was able to extend the idea of division of labor to the realm of knowledge.)

 

  1. Describe the content of the “socialist calculation debate”. How did this change Hayek’s course from the moral to the practical?

 

  1. What is the main premise behind Keynesian economic theory? How does this compare to socialism?

 

  1. Paraphrase Hayek’s opposition to Keynes’s General Theory. (Hint: include reference to “malinvestment” and the negative effects of government intervention.)

 

  1. Why did Hayek fail to (publicly) respond to Keynes, and how did this affect Hayek’s influence?

 

  1. Explain how Hayek portrays Nazism as the antithesis of capitalism.

 

  1. What was Hayek’s primary thesis in The Road to Serfdom? Describe the various reactions to Serfdom. How and why did Hayek know he would suffer from its publication?

 

  1. What objective does Hayek’s edited volume Capitalism and the Historians seek to accomplish?

 

  1. What are the key tenets of The Constitution of Liberty, and why is it so often known as the “modern compendium of liberal ideas”?

 

  1. Identify and describe the three fundamental elements of a society of free and responsible individuals, according to Hayek in Law, Legislation, and Liberty.

 

  1. How did the stagflation of the 1970s begin to bring about an “economic sea change”, which once again saw Hayek’s work as valuable to public policy?

 

 

uConcluding Question/u :

It is suggested that the 20th century could be divided into four quarters based on the men whose ideas were favored during that time: Lenin – Hitler – Keynes – Hayek.

How accurate is this categorization? Which quarter has been the most significant ideologically and/or politically? Explain, using examples.

 

 

Related References:

John N. Gray, F.A. Hayek and the Rebirth of Classical Liberalism

Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Economics as a Coordination Problem: The Contributions of Friedrich A. Hayek

Edwin G. Dolan, The Foundations of Modern Austrian Economics

George Bernard Shaw, Fabian Essays in Socialism

Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis

 

Econlib Articles:

 

EconTalk Podcasts:

 

External Resources

Econlib February 25, 2020

Is it time for Hannah Mather Crocker?

Sometimes women’s contributions to the political and economic life of past centuries are overlooked, not because they were minor, but simply because they were seen as stories of daily ‘domestic’ life and therefore inherently less significant than accounts of war, conquest, and statecraft. Since the 1960s, there has been a movement within the discipline of history to correct these omissions. Historians like Gerda Lerner, Anna Firor Scott, Deborah Gray White, and so many more began the work of filling in forgotten and otherwise neglected aspects of history, often in the newly emerging subfields of women’s history and black history.

However, despite all the excellent work that has been done over the past sixty years, there are still gaps in our knowledge. The evidence that I’d like to offer on that point today is the life and work of Hannah Mather Crocker. Despite being a leading political theorist in the post-Revolutionary era and the first woman to write a book-length discourse on women’s rights, Observations on the Real Rights of Women (1818), Crocker was overlooked for most of the 20supth/sup century. A 2006 APSR article—one of only a handful of academic publications to deal seriously with Crocker’s work—suggests that Crocker may have been set aside in part because Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Gage were critical of her arguments in their first-moving and highly influential 1886 History of Woman Suffrage.[1] This goes to show the importance of going beyond standard ‘textbook’ accounts of intellectual history. Every contribution is a filter, and what was filtered out when answering yesterday’s questions may be exactly what we want to understand today.

In defense of Stanton and friends, Crocker’s ambitions do seem pretty modest compared to those of the later 19supth/sup century feminists. She prefaces Observations on the Real Rights of Women as a “little work” that was “not written with a design of promoting any altercation or dispute respecting inferiority or superiority, of the sexes” (p. 2; all page numbers below refer to this same book). She also often seems to uphold traditional gender roles, conceding to her contemporary readers that the actions of “females trespassing on masculine ground” are both “morally incorrect, and physically improper.” (p. 3). Yet! She writes to us from 1818 in defense of an idea that remains in dispute 200 years later: that despite any and all biological differences, woman are every bit as capable of intelligence and discernment as their male counterparts and deserve the same rights to make their own decisions. Despite the biological reality of being a woman, with all its “duties peculiar”—the most singular of these being childbirth and childcare–“the wise Author of nature has endowed the female mind with equal powers and faculties, and given them the same right of judging and acting for themselves, as he gave to the male sex” (p. 2)

Perhaps the most consistent argument throughout is this argument about how much is lost when women do not or are not able to cultivate their intellectual capabilities. Like other early thinkers on questions of women’s rights, including Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, this emphasis leads focuses on barriers to women’s education as particularly harmful: “it has been fairly proved, even to demonstration, that the female powers and faculties are equal with the men; but their mode of education often checks their progress in learning” (p. 26). Part of the harm Crocker sees in limiting women’s education is that any ignorance will be transmitted to the little “olive branches around her table.” This prioritization of women’s role as mothers is a tough one to grapple with. In emphasizing maternal responsibility, Crocker is well in line with her times. Yet this idea that women’s most appropriate role is as the caretaker will later on come to be twisted for use in political arguments about whether or not women should be allowed particular rights or admitted into particular spaces. This may be another reason why her contributions have been discounted by later generations of feminists.

Overall, Crocker’s treatise on women’s rights may be much more important than it’s been given credit for. She makes strong arguments about women’s intellectual and moral equality. Further, she is offering these arguments during a period of time in American history that was arguably the most restrictive in terms of what women were considered capable of managing. My next post will share some ideas from Crocker that deal directly with women’s productive and managerial roles, particularly in civil society and household government.

 

 

[1] Botting, Eileen Hunt, and Sarah L. Houser. 2006. “‘Drawing the Line of Equality’: Hannah Mather Crocker on Women’s Rights.” The American Political Science Review 100 (2): 265–78.

 

 


_ Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. _

(0 COMMENTS)

Econlib February 25, 2020

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change

I checked out the financial news network yesterday afternoon, and one commentator was incredulous that people were asking the Fed to step in to help solve the coronavirus epidemic. Of course there have also been eyes rolled in response to calls for central banks to address climate change. I certainly agree with those who are skeptical of central banks getting involved with climate change, and even have some sympathy for skepticism that central banks can do anything about the coronavirus. And yet . . .

This all reminded me of the famous line in The Leopard (which is the title of this post.) Yes, there is no need to change monetary policy in response to the coronavirus, but what does it mean to “not change monetary policy?” I’m pretty sure that the commentator would view a change in interest rates as constituting a change in monetary policy, but frequent readers of this blog know that I strongly dissent from that view. Indeed I’ve devoted much of the past decade to the almost hopeless task of convincing people that interest rates are not monetary policy. Consider two alternative views:

Market monetarist: Neutral monetary policy is stable NGDP growth that leads to on-target inflation. Easy money is excessively fast NGDP growth and tight money is excessively slow NGDP growth.

New Keynesian: Neutral policy is keeping the policy interest rate equal to the equilibrium or neutral interest rate, whereas tight money is a policy rate above the equilibrium rate and easy money is a policy rate below the equilibrium rate.

Under either of these two criteria (which are actually pretty similar), there is absolutely no reason to change monetary policy in response to the coronavirus. NGDP growth should continue at about 4%/year and the target interest rate should be adjusted daily to move in tandem with the equilibrium rate.

So why the mysterious Zen-like title of the post, which sounds sort of like a kōan? Because for monetary policy to stay the same, almost everything else must change. The money supply must change, the interest rate must change, and the exchange rate must change.

If you think I’m being too cute here, recall that (prior to 2008) holding the money supply constant generally required a change in the interest rate, and vice versa.   So it’s not necessary to be a market monetarist to buy into the claim in the title of the post.

The Leopard was also made into an excellent film, directed by Visconti:

(8 COMMENTS)

This site uses local and third-party cookies to maintain your shopping cart and to analyze traffic. If you want to know more, click here. By closing this banner or clicking any link in this page, you agree with this practice.