Monday, October 31, 2016

Economic thoughts

1. Why is work virtuous?
I know many people who think it is. But at the same time, accumulating wealth and assets, giving the ability to generate passive income and not work, is also seen as virtuous by the same people!

Unfortunately, these hidden beliefs and biases are extremely common in economic thinking.

2. Why don’t we ever think about the opportunity cost of this spending?
It’s one of the privileges of living in a rich country to spend so much on the military will little public debate. Australia’s military budget this year is $32 billion. Over the next decade, we will spend around half a trillion on the military, much of it wastefully on expensive foreign-made hardware of questionable merit.

If we cut military spending in half over the next decade, spending only a quarter of a trillion dollars, rather than a half a trillion we could do these four things with our spare quarter trill:

1. Replace all electricity generation with renewables - $40 billion (16% of savings)
The basic calculation here is that large scale solar costs about $100MWh at the moment and the country uses 220 million MWh a year. Multiply these magic numbers together. Boom.

2. Fund wildlife conservation in all of Africa for the decade - $25 billion (10% of savings)
Total cost estimates are around $USD 1.9 billion a year to fund proper wildlife and national parks management in southern and eastern Africa. The continent has had a massive increase in poaching recently, and a breakdown in some of the governance structures that formerly were somewhat effective. Obviously flashing that kind of cash needs careful consideration, but if we can coordinate half a trillion of military spending, we could give it a shot.

3. Build a world’s-best fibre optical network - $60 billion (24% of savings)
This would cover all the capital costs, with users paying just for ongoing operational costs.

4. Give every household $1,400 a year in cash for the decade - (50% of savings)
We have to do something with the rest!

3. Does the market really allocate many resources in a "market" economy? 
Unlearning Economics asked it a few weeks back, noting a recollection of a study suggesting that markets only allocate 20% of resources.

A few years back I would have thought that estimate was reasonable. Now, I think it’s closer to zero.

Think about the fundamental ratio here. In the numerator are resources allocated by markets (which needs defining). On the denominator are all resources able to be potentially allocated by markets. In fact, all resources require some degree of allocation amongst humans. This is a massive “amount” even just sticking to earthly resources (ignoring the moon, Mars, other extra-planetary resources, the deep ocean, the upper atmosphere etc.).

In terms of land (or more precisely locations), we have the oceans, Antarctica, all public land in every country. Then on private land, we have resources allocated without markets. I don’t charge my kids for their bedrooms. But there is a market for renting rooms. I just choose not to use markets for this. So kids bedrooms are resources that should be on the denominator.

When you think about it, the denominator gets insanely massive very quickly. Take the labour market for instance.

Each person has 24hrs a day in which they choose what to do with their time. Lawyers charge their time in 6-minute increments, demonstrating that, in principle, we could each trade our labour in 6-minute blocks 24hrs a day from birth.

But we don’t. At most, we trade 20% of our time each working year in markets, and about 60% of a lifetime working, so that’s 12% of labour time in the market for a worker who works a full career.

Many people don’t work at all, so we can tweak that lower, and if we look globally, even less formal labour market participation exists, so perhaps we can halve that to 6% of potential labour market resources traded in markets.

But it is surely worse than that if, unlike lawyers, most labour time itself is allocated on the whim of the labourer because they are paid only each week, month, or year, for an agreed outcome. Thus, the allocation of time each day, even for your typical full-time employee, is not the outcome of market forces. It is instead allocated much more cheaply and efficiently through other hierarchal and bureaucratic mechanisms with a firm.

So in terms of the labour market, we must surely be down to some fraction of a percent of resource allocation done by markets.

Overall, the allocation of resources done by markets as we would strictly define them in economics, must round to zero.

* The image at the top of the post is from here. It is a reference to Herbert Simon's paper Organizations and Markets which asks what a "market" economy would look like to aliens.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lobbyists own QLD planning

A draft of the new SEQ regional plan, a document that the State government uses to direct the development plans of local councils, is out this week.

Yeah for Queensland!

But I noticed something a little strange. It is this mysterious red shading with the word Undullah on it. From Map 24 (find it here). The red means “Draft Urban Footprint”. So no longer are uses on that land limited to rural or agricultural activities. Bring forth the bulldozers, there’s a residential subdivision to be made!

What an unusual shape though. I wonder how that decision was made?

Oh. Look what I’ve found. Here’s a map from planning application made to Logan City Council in 2015. In this map the urban footprint is only the blue hatched area, extending west only to the blue line. The yellow marks the land owned by the person making the planning application. This application did not comply with the planning rules when it was made.

Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. Maybe there’s a legitimate reason to draw a new planning boundary around this one landowner's land, giving them a multi-million dollar windfall gain from this planning decision. My guess of the value this planning decision to this landowner is somewhere in the order of $80-150million. Give or take.

I’m sure if we had an investigative body look into this, there would be no evidence at all of misconduct or improper use of powers by anyone involved.

Or maybe just read the whole back story here and make up your own mind.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A private land titles office is bull$hit

The privatisation agenda knows no limits.

NSW has passed legislation to allow the sale of their land titles office. This is foolish. The land titles office serves as the record of property rights across the country. Its database has a government guaranteed final say on who owns what land and property in the state (under a Torrens Title system). Every sale is recorded there, and every mortgage or lien against any property is recorded there. The database forms the foundation for administering state land taxes and local rates.

How does the government thinks it can regulate a private owner of the titles office to ensure better public outcomes than when it is actually the owner and manager of the land titles office? What magic are they expecting to find? This is a pure gift to the private sector, and I would not be surprised to find whoever wins the bid for the sale will be repaying politicians for the next decades with cushy, high-paid jobs.

The financial logic makes no sense either. If it is worth buying for a private party because of the future returns, than it is worth the government owning it for these same high future returns. The financially logical thing is for the NSW government to borrow at its cheap 2-4% rate and buy it back!

My view is that the land titles database should be freely available to the public. Currently access is sold on a lot-by-lot basis, or in bulk through data-resellers such as CoreLogic (a likely bidder in the sale). It is expensive, and charging for access conflicts with the promoted views of both sides of politics about government transparency and accountability. Knowing who owns what property should be available to everyone, not just cashed-up interested parties. Like many other public record systems, it can be funded by those who benefit from its existence, in this case, property owners.

My questions about the planned sale are these.
  1. Will the State Revenue Office be charged to access the register in order to administer land taxes?
  2. Will there be regulation to limits price increases on access to bulk data to resellers?
  3. Will the State government reman liable for compensation of loss caused by private fraud or by errors made on the registry? This includes, for example, from hacking, IT failure, natural disaster etc. 
  4. Is there evidence that the titles registry is inefficient compared with similar systems globally?
  5. Is there evidence that privatisation of titles registration generates either a) cost savings, and b) reduced costs of access to data for the public?
  6. Given that the title office generates income for the government, would it be better to retain that income source to pay for other government investments?
  7. What alternate options were considered to generate the revenue that would arise from the sale of the titles registry?
  8. Will the sale of the titles registry restrict purchase of the titles registry by foreign entities?
  9. Have any assessments been made of whether free public access to the land titles register provides a net economic and social benefit compared to the current system of paid access? Texas, for example, has such a system with free public access.
  10. What are the total costs of the sale expected to be? Rumours of $4.5million for the sale costs of the NSW registry suggest they are high. 
  11. What are the core regulations that will ensure reasonable and fair access to a privately owned land titles register, and who will enforce these regulations?'
I highly doubt that there are sensible answers to any of these questions. The NSW government is now firmly part of the corporate-mafia.