Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dodgy rezoning, a summary

If you click the news link above you will see that my research on land rezoning decisions and the relationship networks of land owners has had a fair bit of coverage.

One thing I have learnt is that this type of quite technical research requires some effort to translate into bite-sized pieces for the broad media-consuming audience.

This post will be a reference point for the media and interested people that summarises the key findings and provides a couple of simple graphs and visuals that are not specifically included in the original research paper, but that can communicate the basic findings well.

What I did

I took a sample of landowners inside and outside rezoned areas in 6 locations in Queensland, where the statuary body, the Urban Land Development Authority (ULDA), took planning controls away from councils with the intent of increasing density, land values, and the speed of housing development.

In the maps below the blue disks are the landowners in my sample inside the rezoned area (black outline), sized by their land area, while the red disks are outside landowners in my sample. 

The logic of doing this is that these outside landowners could have been rezoned had the boundary of the areas been decided differently. From interviews with former public officials, and many others involved with planning decisions, it came to my attention that there is quite a bit of discretion about boundary decisions in zoning and that well-connected landowners often use their political clout to make sure the boundaries encompass their properties. The odd shapes of these areas are quite suggestive of this type of favouritism, as they have no apparent economic justification.

The sample is filtered to ensure I capture only undeveloped parcels that are at least as large as the minimum size rezoned parcel. There are 1,137 landowners owning 1,192 parcels in the sample.

Land characteristics or owner characteristics?

To see whether the characteristics of landowners likely to reflect political influence were a key determinant of these boundary decisions I collected data from both inside and outside landowners on the following:
  • Political donation activity 
  • Professional lobbying activity 
  • Membership of property industry lobby groups 
  • Corporate relationships through cross-directorships and ownership 
I also created a network of relationships that included the landowners using lobbyist-to-client connections, industry group connections, corporate connections, and
  • Connections from ULDA staff to their former employers 
  • Connections to politicians from their former employers 
The network had 13,740 entities and 272,810 edges.

I then model the effect of these characteristic on rezoning success, finding that being connected in the network increased chances of rezoning by around 19%, and getting into the most favourable part of the network gained an additional 25% chances. Employing a lobbyist improves your chances 37%, even after controlling for all other factors. Political donations don’t show and significant prediction on land rezoning when controlling for these other factors.

Connected landowners owned 75% of the rezoned area, and only 12% of the land outside. 

In the graph above I have the proportion of connected and not-connected landowners that were rezoned, the proportion of landowners who don’t employ lobbyists rezoned versus the proportion of those who do, and the same with political donors. 

The size of rezoning value gains

Using 822 historical sales of development sites inside and outside the areas in the study I estimate the price deviation attributable to rezoning. Essentially the rezoning increase prices across all areas by 81% relative the the neighbouring sites outside the rezoned areas. The below graph shows the price deviation through time, and the big change that comes the year of rezoning.

In all the value to rezoned land owners was $710million, of which connected landowners gained $410million. In terms of the marginal gains to becoming connected in our sample, this was $190million. While on a per hectare basis the mean gains are just $56,000, which isn't much, the sheer scale of the the gains to a narrow group of people represent a problematic political transfer from the unconnected to the connected. It also suggests that many billions in value are regularly transferred to connected landowners through routine rezoning decisions.

What to do

There are two main ways to stop this political favouritism - disrupt the favour exchange, and remove the honeypot.

Disrupting the favour exchange means requiring cooling-off periods for former politicians and bureaucrats, but also a policy of electing independent people to boards and decision-making positions. Why does the ULDA need to have its board stacked with local developers? Why not have a planning expert from Europe? There is a myth that local expertise is somehow required in the regulatory positions, but most of the time you don't get expertise, just loyalty to mates.

Greater transparency from all our public registers would also go a long way. Why aren't land titles a freely available database? Why isn't ASIC register of companies available for free? Why can trusts conceal who owns what so easily?

In terms of removing the honeypot, or reducing the value of discretionary political decisions, the obvious point here is to enact a process of selling additional development rights rather than giving them to selected landowners for free. This requires a pretty radical change in the way planning is viewed, but it makes perfect sense. Planning rules, including zoning, are part of the definition of property rights. You wouldn't give away a land area for free, so why give away land right of a different kind for free?

Alternatives to selling development rights are betterment taxes, and land taxes, both of which are effective administrative alternatives.

We can also think outside the box and look at development timing fees. If the rezoning is intended to increase density and increase housing supply, why not provide incentives to build sooner rather than delay? A per-dwelling fee that increases every year in the rezoned area would encourage developers to bring forward construction and sales.

Lastly, we can have local referenda on town planning changes to allow for representation of the interests of the politically unconnected. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Division of labour is the outcome, not cause

I’ve written twice now on the spurious ideas in the division of labour story as an underlying cause of productivity growth in economics.

First I questioned whether Adam Smith’s observation of a division of labour in 18th century pin factories made much sense, given that the 18 tasks required to make a pin were undertaken by 18 men in some factories, but only 10 men or fewer in others. Clearly even in this iconic case it was not the division of labour tasks into more specialist roles that was the cause of rapid productivity gains in pin factories.

Second, I made the comment that the division of labour story has become an endless repository of ad hoc explanations for productive gains. The story has even captured the imagination of archeologists and anthropologists who saw the invention of tool-making as “gearing up for a clearly defined division of labor.” Yet the simple logic of increasing the number of possible production tasks following the invention of certain tools would mean that each person could do more tasks rather than fewer, suggesting a rather strange interpretation of the division of labour. I also noted that the division of labour story rests on labelling conventions of roles in society rather than actual units of labour being devoted to fewer clearly defined tasks.

Here I want to be even more clear on this final point by presenting a minimal example of how confusion between our socially-labelled productive roles (i.e. butcher, baker etc.) and tasks (baking, mixing, filleting etc.) is partly to blame for this peculiar sate of play. I also emphasise that productivity is the result of doing more tasks with fewer people - the opposite of specialisation.

Inspired by the ancient tool-making tribes of Jordan referred to in my previous post, my example is a 6-person tribe that undertakes 6 defined tasks, of which the two named roles undertake 3 each. Thinking in terms of roles there are 3 hunters and 3 gatherers, yet each person undertakes just one task within those roles.

Task Role Person in role
Track Hunter 1, 2, 3
Collect Gatherer 5, 5, 6

You might want to argue that the way I define tasks offers limitless ad hoc classification. Tracking an animal could be further divided into a team pursuit with specific sub-tasks for each member. Same with cleaning an animal. But this is kind of the point. Any defined task will be a bundle of sub-tasks. But in order to understand the division of labour we need to keep track of tasks at any one particular level of aggregation and not fall into the trap of calling something specialisation when it is just a different bundling of more tasks into one job.

One of the tribe members now invents the spear and woomera. Regular production of these tools requires 3 additional tasks to be undertaken by the new toolmaker role in the tribe.

Task Role Person in role
Track Hunter 1, 2
Collect Gatherer 3, 4
Collect Tool maker 5, 6

Now we have more roles and fewer people in each of them! Exactly as predicted by the division of labour story.

But if we instead look at the tasks, we have more tasks per person. Each hunter, instead of being able to specialise in one task, like tracking, now must undertake more than one task on average as there are only two hunters available for three tasks. The same for our gatherers. What we see as specialisation in roles is the automatic result, not cause, of increasing productive capacities.

What has happened is that the invention of new production techniques has allowed more tasks to be undertaken by each person leading to fewer people in each role. It is not a case of dividing labour in a way so that each person completes fewer tasks, each requiring less training, in order to increase aggregate output, as is often argued. The most productive countries are not full of people doing repetitive narrowly defined non-skilled tasks, but highly educated people doing ‘specialist’ roles involving a hierarchy of complex and interrelated tasks that require years of training to master.

You might still be thinking that the joint production function from specialising on the task that each person has a relative advantage in rescues the division of labour story. Crusoe catches fish, Friday gathers coconuts, and their combined output can be greater than if they individually produced what they consumed. But the simplification in this story ignores the possibility that if Crusoe and Friday gather coconuts together, then fish together, that the complementarities in joint production for each task might increase their combined output by more than if they specialised and worked alone.

Maybe catching fish involves a number of distinct tasks that, when shared between them, would increase their their output beyond twice that of the most productive of the two men. Would that also count as division of labour? If so, then it appears that any joint production can be labelled as a division of labour without offering any insight as to why one division is better than another. What Crusoe and Friday actually need to grow their economy is to each achieve more tasks each in a given amount of time.

To cap off, for the division of labour story to me is just an observation about the human roles in large scale production. It is not a causal story for increasing productivity. Productivity requires that labour bundling, or given more tasks to each person, is the way to increase output.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Endless repositories of ad hoc explanations

Division of labour. It’s a thing. A big thing in economics.

But like many core economic concepts[1] it is mostly an endless repository of ad hoc explanations.

In my last post I showed how Adam Smith’s observations of production techniques in 19th century pin factories lead him to make many contradictory remarks about the division of labour. Yet the implicit argument of a single causal mechanism leading from more division labour to greater productivity has become gospel, filling pages of economics texts for a century.

Let’s take a recent example to show exactly why the division of labour is such a slippery concept.

The title, and indeed much of the text reporting the discovery of new stone tools from Jordan, implies that these tools are somehow evidence of the dawn of the division of labour.
These toolmakers appear to have achieved a division of labor that may have been part of an emerging pattern of more organized social structures

They were gearing up for a clearly defined division of labor, including firewood gathering, plant gathering, hunting and food foraging.
But the invention of these tools probably led to less division of labour rather than more!

Let me digress for a moment. To be clear about a division of labor story requires being clear about the counterfactual world of undivided labour. It should not involve counting up the labelled roles within organisations, as larger organisations will have more uniquely named roles for their employees purely due to size.

To really narrow down we need to think in terms of tasks, not labelled roles given to different people. And then think about all the tasks that need doing for basic production of life’s necessities, then make everyone do all necessary those tasks AT THE SAME TIME IN THE SAME ORDER.

That’s right. That is the counterfactual of undivided labour. A tribe of people who all wake up at the same time, collect berries from the same location at the same time, start a fire at the same time, hunt alone the same animal at the same time, cook the animal at the same time, build a hut at the same time. Also procreate at the same time.

The reason all of this has to occur at the same time is because if it doesn’t then we have naturally a division of labour already. I hunt animals while you collect fruit. Though tomorrow you may hunt and I may collect berries. Turn-taking is quite clearly not the fundamental idea behind the division of labour, yet I often get the feeling the fancy terminology is used to capture this childish idea.

More important is the question of complementarities in joint production, like hunting in groups. I track, you kill. Division of labour.

But if we invent the spear I am able to more effectively hunt AND kill myself than in a team of specialists. Two tasks by one person becomes more efficient. The hunter becomes an anti-specialist, accomplishing more tasks than before.

Even in the iconic pin factory, the story of specialisation can be seen in reverse. Modern pin factories require very few people to do all the 18 tasks required in Smith’s time and in far greater quantities. The specialist maker of a single pin production stage has been replaced by a generalist who controls the whole process, including, no doubt, more advanced packaging.

The division of labour story about productivity is mostly a story about naming conventions for roles in society rather than the tasks achieved in those roles. I am an engineer, you are an account. Mostly though we both use spreadsheets to add numbers, make phone calls, type sentences, maybe drive a car. In fact from a task perspective rather than a role-in-group perspective, there is almost no specialisation. The majority of tasks are the same. But with more people we define each other’s roles more precisely. The ‘division of labour’ story unravels into a ‘large groups can accommodate more named roles’ story.

In modern lives as a whole there are far more tasks we each undertake. Rather than each doing fewer tasks better, we are all doing more than ever thanks to technologically superior capital. The diversity of our own life experience is far higher than ever. More so, those countries with more diversity, rather than specialty, are routinely the most economically advanced.

Returning to the ancient stone tools of Jordan, the invention of those tools would allow the tribe as a whole, and each member within it, to achieve a greater variety of tasks than ever and expand their production possibilities. But if the number of tribe members was the same, no additional specialisation of tasks could take place. Each unit of labour would accomplish a more diverse variety of tasks than ever, which is what expands the production frontier.

To really make the point, imagine a tribe of 50 people can undertake 100 productive tasks. Then with the invention of new tools, the number of possible tasks the tribe can undertake expands to 125. Clearly, the means the average tribe member is doing 2.5 instead of 2 tasks each - the opposite of what you'd expect from a division of labour story.

So what exactly is this phenomena of divided labour about anyway? To me it is mostly a sign of our level of ignorance about human coordination in groups. When looking to why one company, one country, or one historical period was different from the others, the idea of a division of labour is a catch all term that means ‘something to do with cooperation in groups’, and without further refinement, is an endless repository of ad hoc explanations.

fn[1]. I’m thinking here of concepts like capital (including human), technology, utility/preferences. The phrase 'endless repository of ad hoc explanations' comes from this paper.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The inferiority of renting

Debates about housing affordability in Australia are clouded by the belief that renting is an inferior substitute to home ownership. Renters are all just home owners who haven’t made it yet.

Sadly, this leads to the debate ignoring the very real and beneficial option of improving tenant’s rights in order to improving affordability for renting households as well.

Our collective ignorance leads to loud calls to cut stamp duties, the government fee on property transfers, because they are economically inefficient. They make it costly for homeowners to relocate via selling and buying in a new location.

But stamp duties are only inefficient in a world of homeownership, and even then there are alternatives.

  1. Don’t sell your home, rent it out. Then rent a home in a new location. 
  2. Just rent in any location if you have a highly mobile career.

For some reason these perfectly legitimate alternatives are considered inferior. Who would someone rent if they could buy? And shouldn’t we make it easier for homeowners to buy and sell as they please?

What we then ignore is that prices are being set not by the homeowner market, but by investors who time their purchase and sale decisions in order to capitalise on the land value cycle. Cut stamp duties, and we are also giving this group a free lunch, even though they are the ultimate beneficiaries of high prices, while future homeowners bear the costs.

But what if renting wasn’t inferior? What if tenants had greater rights and obligations? Maybe in a ‘renter society’ like Germany and Switzerland, where the majority of households rent, the debate about housing affordability and stamp duty would be very different.

Maybe the policy options would look at lot more like what we see in Germany - greater rights for tenants including limits on rental increases and higher capital gains taxes. Removing stamp duty in order to improve household mobility is a second best alternative to better tenant rights.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Adam Smith’s Pin Factory: Capital vs division of labour

Like many well-trained economists, I took Adam Smith’s argument about the productivity gains from the division of labour at face value. It wasn’t until I read Joan Robinson dismiss the argument in her 1973 textbook An Introduction to Modern Economics that I began to really put the effort into understanding the division of labour. I finally realised its incoherence as an explanation for productivity gains, but also that the pin factory story could provide valuable lessons about economics nonetheless.

Robinson dismisses Smith by suggesting that people can equally divide their own labour across different tasks through time. The 18 distinct operations Smith recounts could just as easily be conducted by the same labourer on 18 different days to generate the same output per person over an 18 day period as in the case where labour is divided between workers.

Further, the fact that relatively unskilled labour could perform any of these tasks adds to the case that it is not the division of labour at play in generating productivity gains. One-way causality from the division of labour to productivity gains is a highly problematic story.

But that leaves open the question about the actual mechanism that provided the enormous productivity gains in the pin factories of the mid-1700s.

Instead of Smith’s division of labour hypothesis, let me propose a capital investment hypothesis to explain the productivity of his pin factory. This hypothesis suggests that it is the technical nature of capital that determines the way labour will be divided across tasks to maximise output and that the division of labour responds to capital investment. The causality goes from capital investment to labour division.

To guide my inquiry I use the structured approach I have advocated for in the past, confronting economic issues by first asking questions about aggregation. For example, why are there 18 tasks to make a pin? Why are 18 workers in one pin factory and not 9 in one factory and 9 in another owned by a different entity? 

The answer to these questions is capital. The image above (source) shows the tools and equipment used in the pin factories described by Smith. Notice that the tools and machines in the picture have been designed to more efficiently perform distinct parts of the pin-making process. It is the way the tools have been designed to efficiently break down the task of making pins that leads to the labour division to ‘man the tools’.

Smith came close to instead presenting the capital investment hypothesis. He says
…a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. [my emphasis]
He suggests that it is the division of labour that has probably given rise to the machines, rather than the machines themselves giving rise to the division of labour. But this logic comes undone later in the paragraph, even though he ignores the inconsistency in his argument.
…the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. [my emphasis]
Even based on Smith’s own observations it is the tools and machines that generate the 18 tasks since people can perform more than one of them. So how exactly how did the division of labour give rise to the invention of the necessary machines that generate 18 tasks with only ten men?

If it was the division of labour that led to increased productivity, labour could just as easily be divided between firms. The fact that pin factories, even with only ten men, still performed all 18 tasks, instead of specialising in just 10 tasks, is clear evidence that there is something special and coordinated about the tasks themselves that arise from the particular capital investments. The tools and machines are designed to be compatible with each other, and if part of the process is done outside the firm, each of the two firms would inevitably be tied to the same compatible capital equipment, and would therefore find gains by merging into a single firm.

When we ask questions about the timing of investment in machines we can more sharply distinguish between the division of labour and capital hypotheses. If it was only after the machines were introduced that labour was divided in a particular way, then that is evidence for the capital hypothesis. If labour was divided into 18 tasks prior to the investment in machines, achieving the same tasks in the absence of tools, then the division of labour hypothesis holds.

Indeed, the prediction of the capital investment hypothesis is that labour task specialisation responds to capital investments in either direction - either with the division of labour, or consolidation of tasks by a single labourer.

A modern test of these predictions could be garbage collection. With rear-loading trucks, labour is divided between driving the truck and loading the bins. But with more advanced side-loading trucks with robotic arms, the labour is once again undivided between driving the truck and collecting the bins. The progression of capital technology determines the division of tasks.

Like many stories in economics, the division of labour as a productivity-enhancer has been approached far too narrowly. There are many economic lessons in the story of the pin factory, and if we probed deeper we could understand more about what considerations determine the boundaries of firms, and why firms are internally not-structured around market principles. But a structured approach to economic inquiry is required to turn Smith’s pin factory into a useful learning tool. The same applies to other stories, like economists favourite Robinson Crusoe story about specialisation and equilibrium. But that will have to wait for another time.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Will higher standards make apartment residents worse off?


Despite the fact that the principle lesson of economics is that there is no free lunch, for apartment residents this is a free lunch. To be more accurate, it is the landowners who are paying; they will now get less for their land because of the higher cost of converting it to apartments at the new higher minimum standard.

The usual arguments against such regulations are:
  • Costs will be passed on to apartment prices and rents 
  • Pro-choice, freedom and all that
  • Regulations often do more harm than good 
All of these arguments are on display in an overly elaborate and ill-informed way in this piece by the usually sophisticated Alan Davies who argues that higher design standard for apartments will make residents worse off. My beef is with first of them.

This 'cost passed on' argument arises in the economics of housing all too often, particularly in regard to rental regulations. I expect the econ-blogosphere to be bubbling with such 'cost passed on' arguments forthwith after Berlin introduced maximum rental increase regulations. I have briefly had my say about this in the past, as has Matt Bruenig who makes the point that property ownership rights themselves are a form of rent control for property owners. If you believe that rent control is inefficient for standard economic reasons, you open yourself up to the problem that freehold title to property - apparently the building blocks of capitalism - are just as inefficient. 

For the pro-choice people, I’m happy for you to take your chances with a heart surgeon who hasn’t been screened through minimum standards regulation, or buy a house that doesn’t meet minimum building standards. Good luck [1].

But back to minimum design standards for apartments [2].

In standard economic analysis, the incidence of the cost of a tax or regulation does not always fall on the person who is obliged to pay it. What Davies argues is that the incidence of the additional regulatory cost falls predominantly on apartment buyers even though developers and builders pay such costs directly when constructing better buildings. In his view it is

Landowner Developer Apartment buyer
(no economic effect) (pays the cost) (economic incidence)

Why does Davies, and for that matter the much of the economics profession, believe this to be the case? Take the simplest of case of stamp duties on property sales. The economic incidence can clearly be shown to fall completely on the seller rather than the buyer, even though the buyer actually pays the cost. To be clear, if the stamp duty cost of purchasing a home is $5,000, buyers will factor that in and pay the seller $5,000 less for their house. Hence the incidence is on the seller who is $5,000 worse off, not the buyer. Economists routinely get this wrong.

In reality what happens in the case of apartment design standards is that the landowner bears the cost. In the short run that will also include developers who own land.

Landowner Developer Apartment buyer
(economic incidence) (pays the cost) (no economic effect)

Why can I be so confident that this the case and the economic incidence is not shared?

Land is a special case in terms of economic incidence because there is no substitute market for a plot of land. All buyers of any particular vacant plot are price-taking in their developed housing output, but price setting monopsony buyers of their land inputs. Although a development site can be sold in a market with many buyers competing on price, all those buyers will be working backwards from the highest and best use of the land, subtracting costs, and working out how much the site is worth. Add more costs into the development equation and each potential buyer will put these cost in their feasibility spreadsheet and reduce their bid for the land by the same amount. In terms of market power the situation is identical to having a single buyer (alternatively, think of the highest bidder the single buyer).

But how do we know developers can’t pass on costs to buyers through higher prices. Mainly because if they could sell at higher prices they would do so WITHOUT incurring any costs.

As a rule, you can tell where the economic incidence of a regulation is by the groups that oppose it, particularly if their logic makes no sense. The Property Council of Australia opposes stamp duties by arguing that they add to prices. But if developers can simply pass on these costs to the price of housing a) why do they oppose it, since they've admitted it costs them nothing, and b) why aren't they already charging higher prices? The Pharmacy Guild is another great example of lobby groups that proclaim that the economic incidence on regulation will be buyers rather than those who hold monopoly pharmacy licences. 

In sum, there is no free lunch by setting minimum apartment standards. But for residents, the lunch is being shouted by landowners and developers so it will make them better off.

fn.[1] The image above is from a recent fire in Melbourne that spread 15 storeys up the building in minutes due to the use of cladding that did not meet minimum fire standards.

fn.[2] Note that I am ignoring the macroeconomic cost in terms of resources potentially diverted from other uses in the construction sector from building these higher standard buildings. And why not. It’s not like Australia, nor most of the world right now is anywhere near full-employment growth rates. There is slack everywhere you look. Higher standards could even be stimulatory in this environment.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Renegade Economists interview on dodgy rezoning

I was interviewed recently about my research on political favouritism in land rezoning by Karl Fitzgerald from Prosper Australia, the country's leading land tax advocacy group. You can subscribe to Karl's podcast, the Renegade Economists, in iTunes.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Exposing political favouritism in land rezoning

Property development can be a dirty business, particularly when it comes to land-banking, which is the speciality of Australia’s largest developers.

Land-banking involves the speculative buying of large parcels of land that are currently unsuitable for development in the hope of future development potential. But hope alone is not a business strategy. How can land banking be so routinely successful for developers in Australia?

One argument is that successful land-banking comes from political favours in terms of rezoning and public provision of infrastructure. These favours provide substantial value gains to landowners at no cost to themselves. While in certain cases this account appears to have some merit, there has been no systematic evidence that rezoning favours the politically connected.

Until now.

I have a new working paper out with my co-author Professor Paul Frijters, that you can download here, in which we look systematically at land rezoning decisions in Queensland.

The basic result is this: How well-connected you are determines how successful you will be in getting your land rezoned for higher value uses. In Queensland $410million worth of additional development rights were given to mates in just our sample of decisions.

In the study we use sample of planning decisions and landowners involving a total area of 12,676Ha, made by one State authority, the Urban Land Development Authority (ULDA), which took planning powers away from local councils with the intention to increase the scale and speed of development in the rezoned areas. Throughout its time the ULDA was no stranger to accusations of bias, with the Local Government Association of Queensland arguing the government is “playing politics and favouring developers.”

In order to establish how well-connected both rezoned and non-rezoned landowners were, we trawled through a wide range of data on political donations, lobbyists and their clients, industry groups memberships, politicians and their former employers, relationships of ULDA board members, and landowner’s corporate records, in order to construct a relationship network.

We also compiled historical sales data to estimate that this series of rezoning decisions increased the value of the rezoned land by $710 million.

Our main finding however, is that well-connected landowners owned 75% of the rezoned land, but only 12% of comparable land immediately outside the rezoning boundaries, indicating that these decisions were primarily driven by the relationship networks of the landowners, rather than any technical assessment of efficient and appropriate locations for urban expansion.

Political favours in the property industry were found to be much more about being part of the entrenched well-connected political class, whose tight-knit mutual relationships support implicit favouritism, than about visible activities such as making political donations.

These well-connected landowners made $410 million in profit from the rezoning decision, at the expense of the public at large who had the option to instead sell those additional development rights. The data tells the story that connected property developers bought land unsuitable for development land on the urban fringe, then successfully lobbied State politicians and bureaucrats through their relationship networks to rezone areas where they had bought properties, wrong-footing both councils and other property developers. This process of influence took 7 years on average.

Scaling up our results suggests that the ‘back-scratching’ rezoning game has probably cost the general public many billions of dollars in Queensland in the last few decades.

We propose a number of technical solutions to this great game of political favouritism in land rezoning. The size of the gains to rezoning can be diminished by increasing land taxes. Development rights could instead be sold to land owners, perhaps through local auction processes, or the value gains recovered through a betterment tax. Even a local democratic system for voting on new areas for urban expansion would counterbalance vested interests with the interests of the public more broadly.

One unfortunate lesson however, is that the same relationship networks that allow favouritism to thrive in rezoning decisions will obstruct any systematic reform of rezoning processes.

UPDATE [1]: Please read the original study carefully to understand how we controlled for the fact that well-connected developers might be just better at anticipating where urban expansion will occur. Our control group of landowners are in almost identical locations.

UPDATE [2]: Seems that NSW is looking to one-up Queensland in the land development back-scratching game. Former Energy Minister for Chris Hartcher, who is under investigation by the corruption watchdog, is now lobbying on behalf of land developers.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Environment Minister sabotages environmental groups

Minister for the Environment, the Honourable Greg Hunt MP. What a title. Pity the guy doesn’t deserve it.

Hunt’s latest effort is to conduct a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations, which maintains records for eligible organisations and carries with it tax deductibility status, and annual reporting obligations. 

The Terms of Reference clearly reflect an intention to amend the qualifying rules to ensure environmental groups that aren’t directly involved in ‘on-ground activities’ like tree planting, will have a hard time staying on the Register. Groups whose primary interest is in political lobbying on behalf of people who value the environment, such as the Environmental Defenders Office, the Wilderness Society and others, may lose support deductibility status, leading to fewer donations and ultimately less political clout. 

What sort of crazy political system would it be if we facilitated and supported organisations that involve themselves in political decisions on behalf of people who care about the environment?

The Honourable Minister for the Environment better do something about that. 

Sarcasm aside, the sad story behind this Inquiry is one of an elite group of vested interests pulling the strings of both major parties in Australian politics. Hunt knows the game is about a trade in favours, and he is doing his utmost to signal to mining and other business interests that he is on their side, and that he is a willing participant in a game of quid pro quo. I have no doubt that our ‘environment minister’ will find himself on the payroll of a major mining interest, or more than one, when he retires from politics. 

While cleaning up our political system will just about require a revolution, there a couple of simple things you can do about this Inquiry if you are interested in having an Australia that has an active organisational sector representing environmental protection. 

Or you can write a submission to the Inquiry yourself.

My submission is here (pdf) if you would like to copy from it in part or in whole.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Back-scratching: Do what's best for your mates and screw the rest

tl;dr I have a new experiment demonstrating the sheer power of back-scratching, even when it imposes huge costs on others. 

These days it seems that just about every political decision is about doing favours for the connected few at the expense of the many. It is part of an implicit quid pro quo; trading of favours now for favours in the future. 

I call it back-scratching, and it is a topic I have been researching for three years.

While trading favours can lead to amazing levels of productive human cooperation, it can also generate a considerable amount of unproductive cooperation when the trades benefit the few at a cost to the many. More than that, back-scratching can come with substantial efficiency losses; the costs to outsiders can far outweigh the gains to favoured insiders.

The revolving door between regulators and the regulated is one clear mechanism sustaining back-scratching. Ben Bernanke is just the latest long list of powerful regulators swinging through this door.

But studying back-scratching in the wild faces a major problem. Favours are almost impossible to objectively observe. Not only is there a powerful incentive to conceal favours, determining the ‘no favour’ counterfactual is almost impossible. Was the government contract given to the most efficient firm? Or was it a favour to the winner because an alternative bidder could have delivered a better outcome for the price? More often than not we just don’t know.

I have a new working paper out reporting an experiment on the economics of back-scratching. Studying back-scratching in a controlled experiment, while sacrificing realism, allows a close examination of the fundamental cooperative processes at play. The ‘big new thing’ I was able to do, in light of the long history of cooperation games in social psychology and economics, was to measure costs of back-scratching against an efficient counterfactual, and test which institutional designs encourage or curtail back-scratching.

To be brief, the basic experiment has 4 players in a group (the minimal number for an in-group and out-group to form), with one player able to choose which of the others to receive a prize of $25 in a round (in experimental currency). The payer who receives the prize allocates a fresh $25 the next round to one of the other three.

Obviously the best thing to do is form a back-scratching alliance with one other player and trade the $25 favour back and forth. Over 25 rounds an alliance pair would make $625, while the other two would make nothing.  

What makes back-scratching costly is that each of the potential recipients is given a randomly shuffled ‘productivity number’ each round, either 1, 2 or 3, which determines a payoff for everyone in the group. Each player gets an amount equal to the receivers productivity number in a round. Give the prize to the player who is 1, the group gets $1 each. Give the prize to the player with 3, the group gets $3 each. Think of this productivity number as reflecting the efficiency firms competing for a government contract. 

To sustain a back-scratching alliance means not choosing the most productive player for the prize in two-thirds of the rounds. It earns the alliance $725, the outside group $100, and comes with an efficiency loss of $100 from the repeated non-productive choices.

It turns out that most players repeatedly formed alliances, even though they were young honest university students who didn’t know each other. In real money terms (rather than experimental currency) alliance pairs ‘stole’ $30 from the outsiders to increase their alliance earnings by $20.

Surprisingly alliance players were happy about their actions. They thought they had been very cooperative by doing their mate a favour, and didn’t feel guilty about the costs they imposed on others. They also rationalised their behaviour, saying that forming an alliance is a justifiable strategy, while also concealing it by lying when explicitly asked in a later survey if they had formed an alliance.

I tested two institutional changes in the experiment. Staff rotation, a common anti-collusion policy, and a low-rent policy mimicking bureaucratic procedures to limit the size of prize able to be allocated with discretion. Neither was particularly effective at stopping back-scratching. I also manipulated the strength of relationships between players.

For me the take-home lessons are:
  • Loyalty is strong. Rotation policies are good, unless those people being rotated in have existing loyalties. This means there is a trade-off for regulators; staff with more industry experience are also likely to come with stronger prior alliances and hence be more prone to back-scratching. In politics it means voting in a different political party brings with it the alliances of that party.
  • Bureaucracy can work. The array of procedures emerging in our large organisations could simply be the result of seeking internal fairness over favouritism. But back-scratching can still arise even with minimal amounts of discretion.
  • Social norms are strong. In organisations or groups where some people are observed ‘doing the right thing for the group’, this quickly becomes the norm. Whereas where favouritism is observed, the group descends into counterproductive back-scratching.
  • Be loyal, but not too loyal. If your alliance partner fails to come through with favours when expected it pays to look for someone else whose back needs scratching.
None of this is really rocket science. If this sounds obvious to you then you’ve probably learnt a lot about human behaviour through life experience. It also means the experiment is capturing some elements of real phenomena.

After spending three years researching this topic, of which this experiment is a small part, I have come to the conclusion that group formation through favouritism is probably the primary determinant of political outcomes. Countries themselves can even be seen as a loose alliance of insiders looking to do what’s best for themselves even when it comes at a cost to other countries.

And if you look deep enough there is an evolutionary foundation for this behaviour. As Joshua Green explains:
Morality evolved to enable cooperation, but this conclusion comes with an important caveat. Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Out moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups). How do we know this? Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles of natural selection. I wish it were otherwise, but there's no escaping this conclusion
This. Fundamentally. Is why corrupt back-scratching is so hard to eradicate, and why it will continue to be the main game in politics.