Saturday, May 31, 2014

Quick links: Crony politics, utility, Becker, exports

The Greens proposed in parliament to implement a Federal Independent Commission Against Corruption with similar powers to the NSW Commission. Labor and Liberal refused to vote, in the process revealing their entrenched reliance on cronyism for their existence.

Former Queensland Electoral Commissioner Bob Longland on 7.30 discussing his idea for federal authority in charge of publishing political donations to all parties at all levels of government (and I guess enforcing disclosure requirements as well).

Great idea. But it seems the Queensland government is taking the opposite approach and reducing disclosure requirements.

Some brilliant detailed criticism of the leap of faith hidden between utility and welfare maximisation at Interfluidity

And a follow up post here

Forget the SMD theorem. In 1986 Gary Becker showed that market demand curves will slope downwards even under irrational choices where a budget constraint exists.

Given my previous post mentioning export-led growth via high levels of investment, here’s a chart of the export share and investment share of GDP (all countries and all time periods from the World Bank database)


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bogus economic excuse for inequality debunked


As I explained yesterday, saving by an individual is usually achieved by buying monopoly assets from others, forgoing consumption in order to capture a future flow of income for oneself.

This usual way to save is merely a transfer of assets whose value equals the difference between income and spending. Someone gets richer, others poorer. But importantly, the rate of saving of an individual, when understood in this manner, bears no relation to investment in the quantity of new capital goods in the economy generally and can’t be related to the rate of growth of the economy.

This point is quite obvious.

Yet it is very common to hear that rich individuals, because less of their spending goes towards consumption items, are able to save more, leading to greater levels of investment in new capital goods and higher future productive capacity.

While many economists profess a degree of caution in such analysis when challenged, the very notion that saving at an individual level equates to a proportional level of investment in new capital at a national (or global) level is embedded in the economic way of thinking.

Here’s Tyler Cowen making the point implicitly
Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.
And here’s Karen Dynan et al.
…active saving corresponds to the supply of loanable funds for new investment and therefore may be helpful in gauging the effect of a redistribution of income on economic growth. 
But since saving at an individual level is almost solely about buying monopoly assets from others, this claim simply cannot be made. Saving at an individual level is nothing more than a transfer of ownership of existing wealth.

When I buy some Apple shares in order to save, I merely buy from the current owner, changing absolutely nothing in terms of Apple’s intentions to invest in new production machinery and equipment.

If saving is as I described, the fact that the wealthy have a lower propensity to consume, and therefore a higher marginal propensity to save, merely implies increasing wealth inequality, as assets accumulate in the hands of the already wealthy; a trickle-up effect if you will.

This is particularly relevant to current debates about how to address inequality. Would a wealth tax on the rich decrease overall investment? Not at all. The tax would be a transfer of ownership of resources, just like the saving of the rich is a transfer of assets and unrelated to investment in new capital equipment.

It is possible under very specific circumstances for an individual's savings to exactly match investment. For example, if I buy a specific financial instrument that pools my funds with others to finance construction (but not land purchase) of a new building. But that is a rare case that proves the general point that there is no proportional matching of saving and investment at an individual level.

While I have said nothing that contradicts economic theory, I do find it frightening that experts in the field have such contrasting views on the matter.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Can a nation save?


I want to offer here a brief analysis of how I think about saving and investment, and why it is important to be very clear about these concepts in policy discussions.

Usually economists equate saving and investment when they shouldn’t. I find it easier to think of savings as not consuming today in order to consume in the future, whereas investment is the production of some new capital good today, say a building, machine, vehicle, that will facilitate greater production in the future.

Let’s start by looking at saving.

I’ve argued before that you can’t borrow from the future. Debts are merely a trade of goods or services in the present for an obligation of different trades in future periods.

A similar conceptual logic is at play when we think of saving. We don’t produce warehouses full of food, clothes, machines and equipment and store them for the future. My superannuation account[1], for example, doesn’t own a share in such a warehouse in order to provide me with the goods I will need when I retire.

Instead my superannuation account owns monopoly assets. These assets are products of the institutional and legal framework of society. I might own a share of a patent monopoly; a sort of institutional power device that guarantees its owner the ability to capture a share of the income generated by the use tools and techniques covered by the patent.

Individuals save by buying assets that comprise a set of monopoly rights. The catch, however, is that all monopoly assets are owned by someone, so any individual who ‘saves’ by buying monopoly assets is merely distributing future incomes to themselves and away from others.

You may now be questioning my claim that all monopoly assets are already owned by someone. What about if I invent a new technology that I then patent. Didn’t I create new monopoly right that was taken from no one?

Actually no.

When you register a patent you are taking away the right to future incomes arising from that technology that would have been available to everyone else using it, and directing that income to yourself.

Saving at an individual level is merely a transfer, so in aggregate there is no ability to save in the way we think of individual savings.

So why is this relevant to a discussion on how nations can save?

Because a nation is one part of the global aggregate, and can save by accumulating monopoly assets currently owned by entities from other nations.

A country that is saving will run a capital account deficit and a current account surplus. They sell goods to other nations in exchange for monopoly rights to future income streams owned by foreign entities.

Usually this situation is sustained by active management of the domestic currency. To keep the domestic currency value low the central bank prints new money to buy foreign assets. This process decreases the relative value of the domestic currency, increasing demand for exports, and represents automatic saving for the country from buying those assets in the first place.

Modern cases of this mercantilist approach include Japan, South Korea and China.

Now here’s where the link between saving and investment becomes important, but where most economic discussion becomes confusing.

The country doing the saving is technically labelled as having a negative rate of foreign investment, meaning they are buying more foreign assets than foreigners are buying of their assets. Dissaving countries are labelled as having a positive rate of foreign investment.

Such terminology is deceiving; even more so when we think in terms of the investment dynamics at play.

The saving country will be a more attractive place to locate capital investments in tradable sectors because of relatively lower costs.

Countries with net foreign investment will actually become less attractive places to invest in large scale capital inputs to tradable goods production.

The key relationship to remember is this. Countries can save the way individuals can by buying monopoly assets currently owned by foreign entities. But this is merely a transfer between the two parties and cannot happen at a global level.

What national saving does is make the country a more attractive place to invest, at the expense of the non-saving country. Saving increases a countries future domestic productive capacity at the expense of future domestic productive capacity of non-saving countries.

For developing countries, mercantilist policies and national saving are a good thing. But to have a proper debate about economic policy we need to acknowledge the realities of saving and investment relationships between entities and in the aggregate.

fn.[1] The Australian version of a private retirement savings account

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Unique economics of healthcare


I was prompted to write this follow-up on health economics after seeing a recent post by blogger Noah Smith, who weighs in with some reasonable views after some intense criticism of the ‘freakonomic’ Chicago-boy Steven Levitt. In a meeting with UK PM David Cameron, Levitt and his co-author apparently made some rather absurd remarks about health care.
They told him that the U.K.’s National Health Service -- free, unlimited, lifetime heath care -- was laudable but didn’t make practical sense.  
"We tried to make our point with a thought experiment," they write. "We suggested to Mr. Cameron that he consider a similar policy in a different arena. What if, for instance...everyone were allowed to go down to the car dealership whenever they wanted and pick out any new model, free of charge, and drive it home?"  
Rather than seeing the humor and realizing that health care is just like any other part of the economy, Cameron abruptly ended the meeting... 
This nonsense reminds me that what constitutes economic debate in the US is often laughable at best.

Health care is obviously not like most other parts of the economy. As I said last week medical services are credence goods - goods which we don’t know whether we need, and even once we’ve consumed them, still don’t know if they were good value. In economic terms, these goods suffer from the worst possible information failures, particularly with respect to the asymmetry of information between the seller (in this case the doctor) and the consumer.

For these goods the demand curve may slope any which way, and people are often left to use price as the only signal of quality (or quantity for that matter). This means that a socially optimal level of medical service provision cannot be determined using basic marginal economic analysis.

Not only that, there are substantial positive externalities to most health care services. Vaccinations are the obvious example, but the same principle applies more broadly.

Once you’ve accepted that health care and medical services don’t fall neatly into preexisting economic models, you need a better way to think about the potential efficiency of any health care system. Rarely is this step taken in public debate.

One way to assess any health system is in terms of the two main sets of incentives - those of the patients, and those of the medical service providers (doctors and suppliers of medicines, equipment and accessories).

We often hear about the patients, with the archetypal case of the lonely hypochondriac making a few extra trips to the GP or emergency department when the service is provided free of charge. Sure they exist, but as I’ve said before, pricing these visits deters both the time-wasters and those with genuine medical needs. Making prices for patients reflect production costs in health care systems has the benefit of reduced health expenditure, but comes at a cost of poorer health outcomes.

But in general no one wants major medical services even at a zero price. Here’s a comment from Noah’s blog making that point
Most medical treatments are painful, unpleasant, and time consuming, and are only desired when non treatment is worse. While making treatment costly will deprive some of access, it will do little to make treatment more undesirable than it already is.
On the other side of the ledger we have the incentives of doctors and other businesses involved in the supply of medical services - drug companies, suppliers of medical equipment and so on.

Here there are usually financial incentives to over-treat or over-prescribe. To take just one example, new evidence from Australia’s two-tiered system shows that in private hospitals there are more medical interventions for low-risk births than in public hospitals.

Indeed there is clear evidence of these interacting incentives following the announcement of the $7 GP co-payment in the Australian federal budget. Some medical centres have been text-messaging patients to remind them that they are not charging fees, possibly due to lower patient numbers. On display is the doctor’s incentive to earn a living providing medical services by marketing to customers, interacting with the uninformed patient reacting to a price that doesn’t even exist yet in a way they can't possibly know is beneficial for them or not.

As a final point, we rarely hear about the monopsony buying power of having a single medical provider, which can be significant. A single national (or State level) healthcare entity is in quite a position of power in negotiating supply contracts when they are the only game in town. In a world were drug companies are heavy political hitters, having incentives within the government to reduce drug costs to economise on health spending seems an important consideration.

If we are going to have an intelligent debate about efficient health care we need to remember three key points
  1. We must consider benefits as well as costs (including externalities) 
  2. There are serious moral judgments necessary about the scope and priorities of health care 
  3. Medical services are credence goods, hence there are unique incentives at play

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Twisted logic of GP fees

The Budget’s proposed $7 GP co-payment fee seems quite benign to many people. After all, if you are genuinely sick or concerned about your health, why would $7 make a difference?

But there simply is no logic behind it, and the more you think about it, the more twisted any possible logic becomes. 

For example, to believe that the fee will deter time-wasters but not genuine patients, you must invoke some idea that people know beforehand whether their ailment is time-wasting or a sign of something more serious. 

It’s like saying if people already knew the diagnosis they would get from the doctor, then they would be able to determine whether they actually need to visit the doctor. 

This ignores the very purpose of general practitioners.

To be clear, medical services as usually classified in economics as credence goods. They are goods or services that we can’t properly judge will be beneficial to us or not. All expert advice falls into this category.

For example, I could hear a strange engine noise and take the car to the mechanic. They could say that it is something minor and not to worry until the next service.

Would I be a mechanic time-waster? What if it turned out to be something serious that needed immediate attention?

Underlying the whole idea of a the $7 GP fee for bulk-billed patients is an irrational belief (see comments section) that medical services are being over-utilised. 

If that were truly the case, we would see government advertising that told us to stay home when we thought we were getting sick, rather than what we in fact do see, which is a blanket message to better monitor our health with more regular check-ups and preventative health screening tests.

But that’s not the end of the failed logic.

If you still hold the irrational belief there are time-wasters over-utilising GPs because the service is free, to believe that a price signal will remedy the problem requires a great deal of faith that the price will deter only the time-wasters and not those with genuine medical needs. 

If the price does not discriminate in this way, there will be significant health costs accompanying budget savings. 

The best evidence we have for the price effect on medical care choice is the 8 year long RAND Health Insurance Experiment, run from 1974-1982. It found that greater cost-sharing “reduced "appropriate or needed" medical care as well as "inappropriate or unnecessary" medical care”.
In fact the experiment also found that the poorest in society are most likely to defer medical treatment when the price increases, meaning that the health costs of this policy will disproportionally fall on our poorest citizens, including the unemployed and the elderly.

If I can digress for a moment and tell a personal tale. When my youngest son was just a week old he had a few signs of illness including a rash, a fever, and lack of appetite. I was not overly concerned, but my wife took him to the GP in any case. Our GP had some concerns about meningitis and we were sent for various tests, including a rather traumatising (for Mum) lumber puncture, and ended up in hospital for two nights awaiting various other results, with baby being closely monitored. It turned out not to be meningitis but some other a mystery infection.

Had there been a GP fee for us at the time we may have delayed the visit another day or so. If we did, and it had been meningitis, we may received treatment too late avoid serious long term damage.

I’m sure there are thousands of similar stories about how an early visit to the GP, that may have seemed a little like time wasting, ended up preventing serious illness or even savings lives.

While $7 doesn’t seem like much of an issue to many, we should acknowledge that the economic logic for doing so is not sound. This policy is taking the exact opposite approach to what we know to be effective. Universal access to health care, with GPs as the first point of call, to screen out the time wasters and offer advice that helps people better know if they are in fact time wasters, is a system we know to be functional.

If it makes sense to charge patients to GP services to improve health outcomes, then by that logic we should charge parents to vaccinate their children. We don’t, because we know the benefits to having universal access to vaccinations provides massive health benefits to the individual and society as a whole. The same applies to GP health services.

Maybe we should trust the experts themselves, the doctors, on this one.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Piketty's wealth tax is real - and it works

As the Piketty-train rolls on it leaves behind it a trail of confusion in economic circles about the proposition to reduce inequality via a global wealth tax.

Economic thinking, it seems, floats on the political tide. The authors of this paper in 2006 noted that
…at present there appears to be little interest in the net wealth tax. In recent years this tax has been practically excluded from any discussion or doctrinal debate on tax reforms, and over time has fallen into disfavour.
Eight years and one financial crisis later, the tide has turned dramatically in favour of using the tax system as a tool for creating a desirable wealth and income distribution.

Many sceptics, however, argue that a wealth tax, either national or globally, is technically or politically infeasible. The basic reasoning is as follows:
…it is impossible within the U.S., never mind the world, as the top 0.1% own the political machinery. Why would anyone who owns the political process agree to tax themselves?
It’s a good question. But it merely suggests we look deeper at the heart of the matter. I like to use one of Matt Bruenig’s favourite lines,“imagine people did things they already do”, as a starting point.

The point being that if the top 0.1% control the political system, then it should be impossible at all points in time to tax wealth.

Unless you are Spain, and it’s 1977. Or France and it is 1981.

Both these countries brought in annual taxes on wealth, with progressive scales just like income taxes. In France 1.5% of tax revenue came from their wealth tax in 2007, while in Spain around 0.5% of tax revenues are raised from such taxes.

Indeed most countries already raise about 5% or more of tax revenues from direct taxes on property, which is essentially a wealth tax on a slightly narrower definition of wealth.

So not only are wealth taxes possible, they are already a feature of the tax system in most countries.

Implementing a shift towards greater taxes on wealth merely requires a minor tweaking of tax rates and/or qualifying assets for taxes that already exist. The institutional machinery is already in place.

The question of the political power of the wealthy is certainly valid. But this merely provides guidance on likely political avenues for change. The obvious follow-up question is, what political circumstances led to the implementation of current wealth taxes?

I’m no expert here, and I’d appreciate any detailed accounts of the political climate at the time, especially in France and Spain. But it seems that the wealth tax was part of the French Socialist’s Party’s platform in the 1981 Presidential elections; which the right-wing party abolished in 1986, for it to be reinstated just two years later.

At first glance it appears that breaking the link between political power and the interests of the very wealthy, via democratic processes, is one successful political path for change.

It may even be of some assistance, politically, if the economic profession would stop pretending to debate the possibility of things people already do. Wealth taxes are certainly possible and are effective tools for reducing inequality.

Another wildly successful tax on wealth is the inheritance tax. Inheritance taxes are again real things, that real countries have, but that fell victim to the political tide of the 1970s in the anglosphere.

At their peak in 1968, taxes on inheritance made up 3.1% of Australian tax revenue, or 0.6% of GDP. In the UK inheritance taxes were 1% of GDP in the same year.

The chart below shows the massive shift away from such taxes at exactly the time inequality began to skyrocket across the anglosphere.


Australia, the UK and US all went through a political change in the 1970s that saw a dramatic reduction in revenue raised from this source, with Australia and the US abolishing inheritance taxation altogether in 1989.

Germany and France maintained these taxes, which have generated an increasing share of revenue since the 1970s. Australia however, chose to forgo this progressive tax and in doing so has forgone significant public revenues.  Last year alone the revenue from an inheritance tax levied as per 1968 would have raised over $9billion.

Not surprisingly countries that reduced or removed inheritance taxes saw the most rapid rise in inequality since the 1980s. Below I use the data from Alvaredo, Atkinson, Piketty and Saez’s World Top Incomes Database to show this relationship.


The top 1% share of income shoots up in the 1980s in the UK, US and Australia, while staying steady in France, and also Germany (at least till the late 1990s).

Once again the political tide is in favour of taxing wealth. The economic debate, however, is settled. Wealth taxes reduce inequality. Most countries already implement taxes on wealth to some degree, either through annual or inheritance taxes, and have institutional mechanisms in places to administer the them. The sceptics do raise an important political question, but we should learn from history and see that democratic processes, in which economists play a part, can provide avenues for change.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Those ‘tough’ social problems

Poverty is a social issue that usually attracts the label ‘tough problem’. Sometimes, when a bit of flair is in order, it is labelled 'complex' or 'multi-dimensional'. This strikes me as a major cop out.

Reducing or eliminating poverty is not ‘tough’ in any technical sense. The ‘tough’ part is our moral baggage - the distorted moral lens through which we see the problem - which provides an excuse not to make the necessary sacrifices required for change.

For example, it is simple enough to imagine a developed country without poverty. Even using a purely relative metric of poverty that is a direct function of the median income (such as 30% of median income), poverty can be eliminated through appropriate redistribution of wealth. Through either welfare payments, transfers of assets, a national job guarantee, minimum wages, or any other sets of institutions, we can get the resulting distribution of income that means poverty is all but eliminated.

It really is that simple from a technical point of view.

In case you are still skeptical of the simplicity of the solution, imagine for a minute that you are the head of a wealthy household. One of your adult children has, for some reason, flittered away their life savings, been kicked out of their apartment, and has no where to turn.

What do you do?

You invite them home. House them. Feed them. Clothe them. Give them money to help them start rebuilding their life. You probably even call in favours to help them find work.

This investment by the head of the family immediately solves that family’s poverty and homelessness problem.

Maybe this solution is temporary. Maybe this child of yours never seems to grow up. They get caught up with the wrong crowd again, and two years later you are back to square one. You invite them home. Feed them. Clothe them. Give them money.

If it makes sense to do this for your family, why doesn’t it make sense to do it more generally for fellow human beings?

It wasn’t hard. It just required a little sacrifice from the wealthy.

If we think about our country, or dare I say our world, as our extended family, our tribe, then it also makes perfect sense for the wealthiest members of the tribe to support the needy.

What makes these social problems ‘tough’ is our moral baggage. When we see a family member in need we we assume the best - that underneath they are good people, and that their situation is a product on a series of unfortunate circumstances. But when those in need are ‘outsiders’, we seem to assume the worst - that their poverty is a choice, and their poor choices reflect some innate ‘bad’ personality trait, and hence they are undeserving of support.

Poverty wouldn’t be such a ‘tough’ social problem if there were only deserving poor.

Unfortunately the most wealthy in our tribe are also politically active and socially influential, and they fear losing their ‘deserved’ wealth to these ‘underserving’ poor. The media is their weapon, and they reinforce the moral message of the undeserving poor at every opportunity.

Removing our morality goggles makes it clear that ‘tough’ social problems are technically not so tough at all, and that much of society is pretending that is the case in order to protect their own interests, and using warped morality to justify their position.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Micro-foundations don't escape Lucas Critique


The Lucas Critique is summarised by Mark Buchanan as follows:
Any prior regularity that might have existed in a set of data had been present only in the context of the policies prevailing in the past. Change the policies and those changes, by influencing the way people act and anticipate the future, may well strongly change or destroy the regularity on which you had based your plans.
In economics this observation was made famous by Robert Lucas in this 1976 article.

Lucas' critique has justified the micro-foundations approach to macroeconomics for four decades. Put simply, unless you model the macro economy as a result of ‘deep parameters’ of the human psyche, you will never be sure whether your model will apply in a different regulatory or institutional environment. Overcoming the Lucas Critique is apparently achieved by offering a macroeconomic model that stems from a utility function of a representative agent.

But why should we believe that the ‘deep parameters’ of micro-foundations, the utility functions themselves, are somehow independent of the institutional environment?

You can’t escape Lucas’ critique by plucking a utility function out of the air and giving it to a representative agent unless you believe that utility functions are independent of the social environment.

Which raises the question, how can it be possible for an individuals preferences, their utility function, to arise in a social vacuum?

It can’t. The evidence is absolutely clear on this point. Preferences, and even perception, are socially constructed. There simply are no 'deep parameters'.

The whole micro-foundations exercise has been a waste of time for all involved.

While economics has taken seriously this critique from Lucas, they have generally ignored its logical extension of the performativity of economic analysis. Basically performativity says that the use of an economic model in society to guide decisions itself changes behaviour, thus changing the environment in which the analysis applies. Or more simply, utility functions with change in response to the use of models built upon utility functions.

The easy way to see this in action is in sports. As soon as one coach creates a play that exploits a common behaviour in other teams, using that play changes the other team’s response, and thus the environment in which the coach’s original analysis was relevant.

You can’t escape any of this logic.

The lesson is that to understand economic phenomena requires a better understanding of institutional environments, and historical and social context. The micro-foundations approach has merely been an excuse to continue to conceptualise the economy as self-stabilising and in equilibrium in the face of the Lucas Critique, while any rational response would have been to acknowledge the inherent instability of social processes, of which the performativity of economic analysis itself a part of.