Basic income: a debate where demand magically disappears!

For a few months now, the case for the basic income has resurged (I thought it died with Milton Friedman in 2006, if not earlier). In the wake of this debate, I have been stunned by the level of disconnect between the pundits and what the outcome of the few experiments of basic income have been. The most egregious illustration of this disconnect is the case of the work disincentive.

To be clear, most of the studies find a minor effect on labor supply overall which in itself does not seem dramatic (see Robert Moffitt’s work here). Yet, this is a incomplete way to reflect on the equilibrium effect of a massive reform that would be a basic income.

Personally, I think that there is a good reason to believe that the labor supply reaction would be limited. At present, many tax systems have”bubbles” of increasing marginal tax rates. In some countries like Canada, the phasing out of tax credits for children actually mean that the effective marginal tax rate increases as income increases from the low 20,000$ to the mid 40,000$. As a result, a basic income would flatten the marginal tax rate for those whose labor supply curve is not likely to bend backward. In such a situation, labor supply could actually increase!

Yet, even if that point was wrong, labor supply could shift but without any changes in total labor provided. Under most basic income proposals, tax rates are dropped significantly as a result of a reduced bureaucracy and of a unified tax base (i.e. the elimination of tax credits). In such a situation, marginal tax rates are also lowered. This means greater incentives to invest (save) and acquire human capital. This will affect the demand for labor!

A paper in the Journal of Socio-Economics by  Karl Widerquist makes this crucial point. None of the experiments actually could estimate the demand-side reaction of the market. Obviously, a very inelastic labor demand would mean very little change in hours worked and the reverse if it was very elastic. But what happens if the demand curve shifts? Widerquist does not elaborate on shifts of the demand curve, but they could easily occur if a basic income consolidates all transfers (in kind and conditional monetary) allows a reduction in overall spending and thus the tax take needed to fund activities. In that case, demand for labor would shift to the right. A paper on the health effects of MINCOME in Manitoba (Canada) shows that improvement in health outcomes are cheaply attained through basic income which would entail substantial health care expenditures reduction.

I have surveyed the articles compiled by Widerquist and added those who have emerged since. None consider the possibility of a shift of the demand curve. Even libertarian scholars like Matt Zwolinski (who has been making the case forcibly for a basic income for sometime now) have not made this rebuttal point!

Yet, the case is relatively straightforward: current transfers are inefficient, basic income is more efficient at obtaining each unit of poverty reduction, basic income requires lower taxes, basic income means lower marginal tax rates, lower marginal tax rates mean more demand for investment and labor and thus more long-term growth and a counter-balance to any supply-side effect.

I hope that the Bleeding Heart Libertarians will take notice of this crucial point in favor of their argument!

Women and secular stagnation

As an economic historian, I’ve always had a hard time with the idea of secular stagnation. After all, one decade of slow growth is merely a blip on the twelve millenniums of economic history (I am not that interested with the pre-Neolithic history, but there is some great work to be found in archaeology journals). Hence, Robert Gordon’s arguments fall short on me.

That was until I was sparked to react to a comment by Emily Skarbek at Econlib. Overall, she is skeptical of Gordon’s claims of secular stagnation. But not for the same reasons. She claims that there are many improvements in welfare that we are not capturing through national income accounts. This is basically the same point as the one made by the great Joel Mokyr (the gold standard of economic historians).

It is true that national accounts have some large conceptual problems regarding measuring output when there are massive technological changes. Yet, all these problems don’t go in the same direction. More precisely, they don’t all lead to underestimation of growth.

My favorite example of one that leads us to overestimate growth is the one I keep giving my macroeconomics students at HEC Montreal. Assume an economy with a labor-force participation rate of 50%. Basically, only males work. All women stay at home for household chores and childcare. In that case, all measured output is male-produced output. Since national accounts don’t consider household production, all the output of women in the households of this scenario is non-existent.

Now assume a technological change causing a shift of 10% of women to the workforce at the same wage rate as men. That boosts labor participation rate to 55% and output by 5%. However, that would largely overestimate growth caused by this shift. After all, when my grandmothers were raising my parents, they were producing something. It was not worthless output. Obviously, if my grandmothers went to work, there was some net added value, but not as much as 5%. However, according to national account, the net increase in GDP is … 5%.

Obviously wrong right? Now, think of the economic history of the last 100 years. Progressively, female labor-force participation increased as marriages were delayed and family sizes were reduced. Unmarried women stayed on the market longer. Then, the introduction of new household technologies allowed some married women to join the labor force more actively. Progressively, women accumulated more human capital and became more active in the labor force. So much that in many western countries, both genders have equal labor-force participation rates.

As they shifted from household production to market production, we considered that everything they did was a net added value. We never subtracted the value of what was produced before. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that women work instead of toiling inside a household to handwash dirty clothes. Yet, it would be both statistically incorrect and morally insulting to say that what women did in the household had no value whatsoever. 

The role of household production in reducing the quality of growth estimates goes back to the 1870s! A 1996 article in Feminist Economics (which I use a lot in my own national account sections of macroeconomics classes) shows the following changes in growth rates when we account for the value of household production. Instead of increasing to 1910 and then falling to 1930, growth in the United States falls to 1930. While the growth rates remain appreciable, they nonetheless indicate a massively different interpretation of American economic history.

SecularStagnation

 

Sadly, I do not possess a continuation of such estimates to later points in time for the United States. I know there is an article by the brilliant Valerie Ramey in the Journal of Economic History, but I am not sure how to compute this to reflect changes in overall output. I intend to try to find them for a short piece I want to submit later in 2016. Yet, I do have estimates for my home country of Canada. Combining a 1979 paper in the Review of Income and Wealth with a working paper from Statistics Canada, it seems that the value of household production falls from 45% of GNP in 1961 to 33% in 1998. When we adjust GDP per capita to consider the changes in household work in Canada, the growth path remains positive, but it is less impressive.

SEcularStagnation2

I am not saying that Gordon is right to say that growth is over. I am saying that the accounting problems don’t all go in the direction of invalidating him. In fact, if my point is correct, proper corrections would reduce growth rates dramatically for the period of 1945 to 1975 and less so for the period that followed. This may indicate that “slow growth” was with us for most of the post-war era. That’s why I reacted to the blog post of Skarbek.

It also allows me to say the thing that is the best buzz-kill for economics students: national accounting matters!

Are small autonomous political units economically viable?

Macau Skyline

I am at the moment enjoying my end-of-year-holidays in Macau, a micro-state next to Hong Kong and like Hong Kong also a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. Being a SAR basically means that Macau is allowed political and economic autonomy, but still belongs to the People’s Republic of China. This construction is also known as the “One Country, Two Systems” constitutional principle. Being here makes me realize once again the unique position of micro-states. Although I understand that GDP per capita is no measure of everyone’s personal income, I would still like to stress that Macau has the second highest GDP per capita income in the world in 2014 according to the World Bank and that the CIA has placed Macau at spot number 3. Macau has furthermore the 2nd highest life expectancy rate (CIA, 2012). Some other interesting facts about Macau:

  • 0% VAT;
  • max. personal income tax rate of professional practices is 12% and only for incomes above MOP424,000 (~ 53,000USD);
  • currently 30% of this professional tax is waived;
  • tax free income threshold stands at MOP144,000 (~ 18,000USD);
  • Macanese residence in possession of an ID-card receive a yearly refund of 60% of the professional tax paid, subject to a cap of MOP12,000 (~ 1,500USD);
  • Macau is also known as a gambling/entertainment hub of Asia with the gambling/entertainment industry making up around 50% of the economy.

It is sometimes claimed that small autonomous political units are economically unviable, but Macau – like Hong Kong, Singapore, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Luxemburg and more – disprove this claim. Two reasons that are often given for the unviability of small autonomous political units are (a) economies of scale is difficult to realize in small states, and (b) they are vulnerable to trade shocks because their size prevents the states from wide diversification in economic activities. If these reasons would hold, then we would certainly find that micro-states are generally poorer than larger states. However, Easterly and Kraay (1999) have empirically found that micro-states[1] are 40-50% richer than other states when controlled for location by continent, controlled whether they are oil producers, and controlled whether they are members of OECD. In addition, Easterly and Kraay have found that life expectancies in these states are about four years higher and that the under-five infant mortality is lower by 22 per thousand. This suggests that micro-states do not suffer from developmental disadvantages.

Micro-states have been particularly more successful, because without abundant access to land and labour they are pressured to specialize their national economies[2] and to engage in international trade. International trade is particularly important in order to acquire goods that cannot be produced nationally. This pressure to trade encourages peaceful inter-state cooperation. Moreover, due to its small size, public policies are easier to follow which tends to result in greater political transparency. It hence increases the incentives of citizens to become politically involved. The rule over a small territory makes public policy targets also more efficient, and as a result fewer taxes are required. Nevertheless, one could still argue that micro-states in Easterly and Kraay’s research are large enough to be economically viable, but that especially those states that consist of maybe as few as 100 members would suffer from developmental disadvantages. This however, is a question of what the smallest possible size is for an economically well-functioning state. It is an interesting question that I unfortunately cannot answer. I will nonetheless leave a note from Plato on the subject to emphasize the importance of the division of labour in any well-functioning state. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asserts that the state arises from the division of labour through which goods are efficiently supplied so that its citizens’ needs are fulfilled. The smallest notion of the state, as Socrates then asserts, exists of at least four persons who can produce the greatest human necessities: a farmer, builder, weaver, and shoemaker. I do not share the opinion that these specific four occupations are necessities for a small state, but I think you get the gist: for a (minimal) state to function well, you need at least division of labour.

Reference
Easterly, W., & Kraay, A., (1999). Small States, Small Problems? The World Bank.

Footnotes
[1] Micro-states are defined by Easterly & Kraay as states with populations of 1 million or less. Some examples of the 33 investigated states are Belize, Cyprus, Gabon, Iceland, Luxemburg and Suriname.
[2] Specialization increases productivity, and hence competitiveness.

NGDP, NGO and total expenditures

I did not think that my post on NGO versus NGDP would gather attention, but it did (so, I am happy). Nick Rowe of Carleton University and the (always relevant) blog Worthwhile Canadian Initiative responded to my post with the following post (I was very happy to see a comment by Matt Rognlie in there).

Like Mr. Rowe, I prefer to speak about trade cycles as well. I do not know how the shift from “transactions” to “output” occurred, but I do know that as semantic as some may see it, it is crucial. While a transaction is about selling a unit of output, the way we measure output does not mean that we focus on all transactions.  I became aware of this when reading Leland Yeager (just after reading about the adventures on Lucas’ Islands). However, Nick (if I may use first names) expresses this a thousand times better than I did in my initial post. When there is a shift of the demand for money, this will affect all transactions, not only those on final goods. Thus, my first point: gross domestic product is not necessarily the best for monetary transaction.

In fact, as an economist who decided to spend his life doing economic history, I do not like gross domestic product for measuring living standards as well (I’ll do a post on this when I get my ideas on secular stagnation better organized). Its just the “least terrible tool”. However, is it the “least terrible” for monetary policy guidance?

My answer is “no” and thus my proposition to shift to gross output or a measure of “total spending”. Now, for the purposes of discussion, let’s see what the “ideal” statistic for “total spending” would be. To illustrate this, let’s take the case of a change in the supply of money (I would prefer using a case with the demand for money, but for blogging purposes, its easier to go with supply)

Now unless there is a helicopter drop*, changes in the money supply generate changes in relative prices and thus the pattern (and level) of production changes too. Where this occurs depends on the entry point of the increased stock of money. The entry point could be in sectors producing intermediary goods or it could closer to the final point of sale. The closer it is to the point of sale, the better NGDP becomes as a measure of total spending. The further it is, the more NGDP wavers in its efficiency at any given time. This is because, in the long-run, NGDP should follow the same trend at any measure of total spending but it would not do so in the very short-run. If monetary policy (or sometimes regulatory changes affecting bank behavior “cough Dodd-Frank cough”) causes an increase in the production of intermediary goods, the movements the perfect measure of total spending would be temporarily divorced from the movements of NGDP. As a result, we need something that captures all transaction. And in a way, we do have such a statistic: input-output tables. Developed by the vastly underrated (and still misunderstood in my opinion) Wassily Leontief, input-output tables are the basis of any measurement of national income you will see out there. Basically, they are matrixes of all “trades” (inputs and outputs) between industries. What this means is that input-output tables are tables of all transactions. That would be the ideal measure of total spending.  Sadly, these tables are not produced regularly (in Canada, I believe there are produced every five years). Their utility would be amazing: not only would we capture all spending (which is the goal of a NGDP target), but we could capture the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and see how certain monetary decisions could be affecting relative prices.** If input-output tables could be produced on a quarterly-basis, it would be the amazing (but mind-bogglingly complex for statistical agencies).

The closest thing, at present, to this ideal measure is gross output. It is the only quarterly statistic of gross output (one way to calculate total spending) that exists out there. The closest things are annual datasets. Yet, even gross output is incomplete as a measure of total spending. It does not include wholesale distributors (well, only a part of their activities through value-added). This post from the Cobden Centre in England details an example of this. Mark Skousen in the Journal of Private Enterprise published a piece detailing other statistics that could serve as proxies for “total spending”. One of those is Gross Domestic Expenditures and it is the closest thing to the ideal we would get. Basically, he adds wholesale and retail sales together.  He also looks at business receipts from the IRS to see if it conforms (the intuition being that all sales should imitate receipts claimed by businesses). His measure of domestic expenditure is somewhat incomplete for my eyes and further research would be needed. But there is something to be said for Skousen’s point: total nominal spending did drop massively during the recession (see the fall of wholesale, gross output and retail) while NGDP barely moved while, before the recession, total nominal spending did increase much faster than NGDP.

NGONGDP1

In all cases, I think that it is fair to divide my claim into three parts: a) business cycles are about the deviation from trends in total volume of trades/transactions, thus the core variable of interest is nominal expenditures b) NGDP is not a measure of total nominal spending whose targeting the market monetarist crowd aims to follow; c) since we care about total nominal spending, what we should have is an IO table … every month and d) the imperfect statistics for total spending show that the case made that central banks fueled spending above trend and then failed to compensate in 2008-2009 seems plausible.

Overall, I think that the case for A, B and C are strong, but D is weak…

* I dislike the helicopter drop analogy. Money is never introduced in an equal fashion leading to a uniform price increase. It is always introduced through a certain number of entry points which distort relative prices and then the pattern of trade (which is why there is a positive short-term relation between real output and money supply). The helicopter drop analogy is only useful for explaining the nominal/real dichotomy for introductory macro classes.
** Funny observation here: if I am correct, this means that Hayek’s comments about the structure of production would have been answered by using Leontief’s input-output table. Indeed, the Austrians and Neoclassicals of the RBC school after them have long held that monetary policy’s real effects are seen through changes in the structure of production (in the Austrian jargon) or by inciting more long-term projects to be undertaken creating the “time to build” problem (in the RBC jargon). Regardless of which one you end up believing (I confess to a mixed bag of RBC/Austrian views with a slight penchant to walk towards Rochester), both can be answered by using input-output tables. The irony is that Hayek actually debated “planning” in the 1970s and castigated Leontief for his planning views. Although I am partial (totally) to Hayek’s view on planning, it is funny that the best tool (in my opinion) in support of Hayek is produced by an intellectual adversary

The Incredible Bread Machine (R.W. Grant)

This is a legend of success and plunder
And a man, Tom Smith, who squelched world hunger.
Now, Smith, an inventor, had specialized
In toys. So, people were surprised
When they found that he instead
Of making toys, was BAKING BREAD!

The way to make bread he’d conceived
Cost less than people could believe.
And not just make it! This device
Could, in addition, wrap and slice!
The price per loaf, one loaf or many:
The miniscule sum of under a penny.

Can you imagine what this meant?
Can you comprehend the consequent?
The first time yet the world well fed!
And all because of Tom Smith’s bread.

A citation from the President
For Smith’s amazing bread.
This and other honors too
Were heaped upon his head.

But isn’t it a wondrous thing
How quickly fame is flown?
Smith, the hero of today
Tomorrow, scarcely known.

Yes, the fickle years passed by;
Smith was a millionaire,
But Smith himself was now forgot
Though bread was everywhere.

People, asked from where it came,
Would very seldom know.
They would simply eat and ask,
“Was not it always so?”

However, Smith cared not a bit,
For millions ate his bread,
And “Everything is fine,” thought he,
“I am rich and they are fed!”

Everything was fine, he thought?
He reckoned not with fate.
Note the sequence of events
Starting on the date
On which the business tax went up.
Then, to a slight extent,
The price on every loaf rose too:
Up to one full cent!

“What’s going on?” the public cried,
“He’s guilty of pure plunder.
He has no right to get so rich
On other people’s hunger!”

(A prize cartoon depicted Smith
With fat and drooping jowls
Snatching bread from hungry babes
Indifferent to their howls!)

Well, since the Public does come first,
It could not be denied
That in matters such as this,
The Public must decide.

So, antitrust now took a hand.
Of course, it was appalled
At what it found was going on.
The “bread trust,” it was called.

Now this was getting serious.
So Smith felt that he must
Have a friendly interview
With the men in antitrust.
So, hat in hand, he went to them.
They’d surely been misled;
No rule of law had he defied.
But then their lawyer said:

The rule of law, in complex times,
Has proved itself deficient.
We much prefer the rule of men!
It’s vastly more efficient.
Now, let me state the present rules.

The lawyer then went on,
These very simpIe guidelines
You can rely upon:
You’re gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it’s unfair competition
If you think you can charge less.

A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion:
Don’t try to charge the same amount:
That would be collusion!
You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do, you see,
Then the market would be yours
And that’s monopoly!”

Price too high? Or price too low?
Now, which charge did they make?
Well, they weren’t loath to charging both
With Public Good at stake!

In fact, they went one better
They charged “monopoly!”
No muss, no fuss, oh woe is us,
Egad, they charged all three!

“Five years in jail,” the judge then said.
“You’re lucky it’s not worse.
Robber Barons must be taught
Society Comes First!”

Now, bread is baked by government.
And as might be expected,
Everything is well controlled;
The public well protected.

True, loaves cost a dollar each.
But our leaders do their best.
The selling price is half a cent.
(Taxes pay the rest!)

Around the Web: Harvest moon over Uranus

Why? Because it’s Friday. My workweek this week happens to start (and hopefully not also end) on Saturday, a circumstance that would totally blow the minds of drive-time radio hosts across the land. Nevertheless, for everybody else, it’s Friday, one of the great days of Lenten fasting at the opposite time of the year, or so we’re instructed, but statistically a day to puke in gutters from Manayunk to the Gaslamp Quarter just like we did last week. Let’s get vulgar.

1. Books are good. Books are edifying. Books encourage us to slow down, focus, develop an attention span longer than that inculcated by lolcat videos, hone our intellects, and increase our funds of knowledge. Books like Boris the Shitting Buffalo.

The same author also maintains a blog, and Good Lord of the High Plains Hunt, the man is shrill. By his reckoning, picking crops commercially apparently isn’t enough to offset the great deficit of manliness that I incur by not being totally head-up about gubbyment taking my money to give food stamps to freeloaders, like the freeloaders who worked alongside me in a bee-infested blueberry patch earlier this month. I and my SNAP-addled colleagues all failed Aaron Clarey’s great manosphere political shit test, although it probably stood to reason for the two women in our group.

As it happens, I heard about Clarey through:

2. Roosh, a STEM dropout who makes a living, or pretends to make a living, by writing about his sex life, or maybe his imagined sex life, crowd-sourcing the sexual attractiveness of random women by posting their photographs on Twitter, deploying sexual slurs against ideological adversaries, and defending crashing long-term at his dad’s place when he isn’t traveling the world bedding its hotties.

A couple of fine self-serious chaps, I say.

3. More proof that any attempt to describe Charles Carreon will fall short of the glory of Charles Carreon:

In a 30-minute phone interview with Ars on Wednesday, Carreon lamented that, as a result of this entire sordid affair, his professional reputation has been damaged—or as he calls it, “rapeutated.” In fact, Carreon has a colorful website at Rapeutation.com that includes an elaborate chart with a new, long, and extensive list of all the so-called “rapeutationists,” including yours truly and two more Ars staffers. If you’d like to see a picture of Carreon’s critics—including an Ars Technica writer—spewing fecal matter out of their mouths, that too can be accommodated.

Quoth the avowed Buddhist:

“It’s an insoluble problem,” he continued. “It’s is not remediable. As long as you keep punching ‘Charles Carreon’ into Google, there’s just more stories about this nonsense. How can anyone get their message through? I’ve written hundreds of works. You can’t find them. Is that helpful? No. Now it’s difficult for prospective clients to see that I’m a relatively erudite person. Since then, some Amazon reviews of my books have, in bad faith, been given one star—I don’t sell many books anymore. Now it’s highly unlikely that anyone would say that Charles Carreon is a pretty bright guy.”

In the third person, no less. Carreon’s Buddhism isn’t compelling him to let go of his desires by making a concerted effort to pay the judgment already secured against him by his rapeutationists, but realize that he’s from Arizona (because, pursuant to his poetry, you don’t mess with the man from Tucson) by way of Ashland, Oregon, a city whose religious syncretism has never been the self-effacing kind. (Don’t ask me for details. I’ll be up all night if you do.)

4. Quick! Find the most efficient way to aggregate all manosphere tropes in a single essay!

4A. Miley Cyrus as symptom and cause of third-wave feminism.

Alternate explanation: Miley Cyrus, daughter of Billy Ray “Achy Breaky Heart” Cyrus, as vector of second-generation suck.

4B. Our boy Roosh again, in his capacity as patron of the preceding Return of Kings doubleheader:

Women and homosexuals are prohibited from commenting here. They will be immediately banned.

Oh yeah, a no homo manstuff pledge. This guy is as manly as Ted Haggard. And if his demeanor is any indication, he would have us believe that kings, he being among them, are effete, condescending, endlessly intoning about stupid hobbyhorses, and hyperlecherous misogynists.

Come to think of it, it’s served the Kennedy family well enough. God save the King from his flying, driving and skiing habits, or not.

A Note on Taxation

I have found it sensible to characterize taxation as a form of extortion. This is what it was when monarchs claimed that they owned the realm and everyone who occupied a part of it had to pay them for the privilege of utilizing it. Monarchs–at least many of them–believed that they own the country they happen to rule (because, some argued, God appointed them the caretaker of it). So if you make use of any portion, you need to pay them (taxes). It was just a “fee” extracted in return for the privilege of dipping into the monarch’s property.