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.

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