On Sugary Drinks, Taxes and Demand Curves

A few days ago, I discovered a blog post on the website of Jayson Lusk (a very good agricultural economist whose work has often guided some of my own economic history research given that most economic history is also agricultural history). The post relates to a study of the implementation of a sugary drink tax in Berkeley to fight obesity.

Obviously, a tax will reduce the consumption of any good. That is pretty axiomatic and all that we need to know is how much. In other words, how elastic is demand. If all things are held constant, the quantity consumed relative to the price change will give you that measure.* However, the study that Lusk pointed too basically shows that we often do not hold everything constant.

The authors of the study point out that when tax is passed, there is generally a debate that occurs beforehand. This generates publicity about the issue. This alters the behavior of consumers because they face more information. This is an effect that must be isolated from that of the tax itself.  That is what the authors do in their papers and they find that a reduction of soft drinks consumption did occur during the campaign and after the tax was adopted but before it was implemented (they rely on on-campus sales of soft drinks at a “major university” which we can assume is UC-Berkeley). Thus, the reduction in consumption preceded the price change. Lusk himself found something similar in a case related to animal welfare. Using a Californian electoral proposition regarding animal welfare in the production of eggs, he found that the publicity surrounding the proposition changed consumer behavior.

Lusk, rightly in my opinion, points out this suggests that information-based policies are probably more efficient than heavy-handed measures like taxes.

But I think there is a deeper point to make. When you inform consumers, you don’t only change the location of the demand, you also change the slope of the curve. If a consumer is made aware of the costs (and benefits) of his consumption that he had not previously considered, he may become more sensitive to the price. Informing people about the ill-effects of sweet drinks might make them more sensitive to the price they pay. Imagine that the information campaign during the Berkeley vote on the tax caused consumption to become more elastic. That means that the tax’s effects is being amplified by the information effect from the publicity. Had the tax been imposed as a surprise, the effect would have been smaller. Basically, Lusk’s presentation of the argument is understating the effects of information-based policies.


* On a tangential point, I would like to remind that people can reduce their consumption of soft drinks without changing their total calorific intake. Indeed, if I am taxed when I consume a soft drink, I can switch to coffee with cream. Thus, pundits often confuse a reduction in soft drinks consumption after a tax as a step in favor of reducing obesity.

On Tax Resistance, Censuses and the Cliometrician’s Craft

In the process of finalizing another research article (under revise and resubmit for Agricultural History), I found a small case of tax resistance in Canada East (modern day Quebec) in 1851  that is interesting.

The district of Grenville, northwest of Montreal, was an ethnically mixed district (25% French, the rest were English-Canadians) operating under the British freehold tenure system (as opposed to most of the rest of the province that operated under French seigneurial tenure). During the 1851 census, the enumerator complained that the population of roughly 2,000 inhabitants refused to report statistical information.

Basically, the enumerator pointed out that the majority supposed the information they were giving was “the precursor of a general tax for schools which they are strongly opposed to”.

tax-resistance-in-the-censuses

I find this to be interesting because it is a nice little case of how hard to master the craft of an economic historian. As a cliometrician, my task is to find the best data possible to answer historical questions with strong economic theory (while enriching theory with historical evidence). The data for that area would be biased downwards as peasants would understate their incomes to avoid being heavily taxed. Any statistical test to assert the applicability of a theory to historical questions of Canada (or Quebec) would be altered by this reaction on the part of peasants.

True, for some broad questions (like measuring GDP), this would not be too dramatic an issue. However, for more specific questions like “what was the role of tenure systems in explaining Quebec’s relative poverty”, the issue would be more problematic.

How much do the little things matter, right?

Is Trump So Old? Its all relative really!

Today is inauguration day. Donald Trump will officially be the 45th President of the United States of America. Many have pointed out that Trump is the oldest president (slightly above 70 years of age). I disagree.

Old is not a “purely” absolute concept. Advances in living standards mean advances in our ability to live longer lives. Not only do we live longer lives than in the past, but at any point in our life, our health is better. Someone who reached 65 years of age in 1900 probably did not have the same health prospects as someone who reaches that age today. Basically, the “quality” of old age has increased over time (see this great book on the economic history of aging). So, when people say “old”, I ask “old as compared to what”.

To meet that test, I took the CDC data on life expectancy as well as soon historical database  from 1900 to today. I combined it with David Hacker’s work on life tables in the US from 1790 to 1900 which can be found in this article of Historical Methods.  Hacker’s data concerns only the white population. I took only the age expectancy at birth of males. Then, I plotted the age of the president at the time of inauguration as a share of the life expectancy at birth (E0). This is the result:

inauguration

As one can see, the age of presidents as a share of life expectancy is falling steadily since the early 1900s. In this light, Donald Trump is not the oldest president. In fact, the oldest president is …. drumroll…James Buchanan (1.85 times the life expectancy of white males at birth). Moreover, in this light, the youngest president at inauguration is not Teddy Roosevelt (Kennedy was the youngest elected). Rather, the youngest is Barack Obama followed very closely by Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy.

I find this post to be interesting as it shows something more important in my eyes: how the poorest in society have done. Presidents have generally stemmed from the top of the income distribution. Over time, the ages of presidents at inauguration (in absolute terms) has not followed any clear trend. The drop seen in the graph above is entirely driven by increases in the life expectancy of the “average” American. In a certain way, it shows that the distance between that “Joe the Plumber” and the “Greatest Man in America” (huh…Lord Acton anyone?) seems to be diminishing over time.

On the (big) conditions for a BIG

This week, EconTalk featured a podcast between Russ Roberts and Michael Munger (he of the famous Munger-proviso which I live by) discussed the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). In the discussion, there is little I ended up disagreeing with (I would have probably said some things differently though). However, I was disappointed about a point (which I made here in the past) which economists often ignore when discussing a BIG: labor demand.

In all discussions of the BIG, the debates always revolve around the issue of labor supply assuming that it will induce some leftward shift of the supply curve. While this is true, it is irrelevant in my opinion because there is a more important effect: the rightward shift of the labor demand curve.

To make this argument, I must underline the conditions of a BIG for this to happen. The first thing to say is that a) the social welfare net must be inefficient relative to the alternative of simply giving money to people (shifting to a BIG must be Pareto-efficient); b) the shift mean that – for a fixed level of utility we wish to insure – the government needs to spend less and; c) the lower level of expenditures allows for a reduction in taxation.  With these three conditions, the labor demand curve could shift rightward. As I said when I initially made this point back in January 2016:

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.

As I pointed out back then, the Canadian experiment (in Manitoba) with a minimum income led to substantial improvements in health outcomes which meant lower expenditures for healthcare. As a result, b) is satisfied and (by definition) so is a). If, during a shift to a BIG, condition c) is met, the entire discussion regarding the supply effects becomes a mere empirical issue.

I mean, equilibrium effects are best analyzed when we consider both demand and supply…

P.S. I am not necessarily a fan, in practice, of BIG. Theoretically, the case is sound. However, I can easily foresee policy drifts where politicians expand the BIG beyond a sound level for electoral reasons (or even tweak the details in order to add features that go against the spirit of the proposal). The debate between Kevin Vallier (arguing that this public choice reasoning is not relevant) and Phil Magness (who argues the reverse) on this issue is pretty favorable to Magness (in my opinion). UPDATE: Jason Clemens over at the Fraser Institute pointed to a study they made regarding the implementation of a BIG in Canada. The practical challenges the study points too build upon the Magness argument as applied in a Canadian perspective. 

The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health

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A few weeks ago, I finished reading the Pox of Liberty authored by Werner Troesken. Although I know some of his co-authors personally (notably the always helpful Nicola Tynan whose work on water economics needs to be read by everyone serious in the field of economic history – see her work on London here), I never met Troesken. Nonetheless, I am what you could call a “big fan” in the sense that I get a tingling feeling in my brain when I start reading his stuff. This is because Troesken’s work is always original. For example, his work on the economic history of public utilities (gas and electricity) in the United States is probably one of the most straightforward application of industrial organization to historical questions and, in the process, it kills many historical myths regarding public utilitiesThe Pox of Liberty is no exception and it should be read (at the risk of become a fan of Troesken like I am) as a treatise on the political economy of public health.

Very often, it will be pointed out that public health measures are public goods that government should provide lest it be “underprovided” if left to private actors. After all, it is rare to hear of individuals who voluntarily quarantined themselves upon learning they were sick. As a result, the “public economics” argument is that the government should mandate certain measures (mandatory vaccination and quarantine) that will reduce infectious diseases. Normally, the story would end there. And to be sure, there is a lot of evidence that mild coercive measures do reduce some forms of mortality (mandatory vaccination and quarantine). The more intense the policies, the larger the positive effects on health outcomes. For example, taxes on cigarettes do reduce consumption of cigarettes and thus, secondhand smoke. In fact, even extreme coercive measures like smoking bans seem to yield improvements in terms of public health (another example is that of Cuba which I discussed on this blog).

However, Troesken’s contribution is to tell us that the story does not end there. In a way, the “public economics” story is incomplete. The institutions that are best able to deploy such levels of coercion are generally also the institutions that are unable to restrain political meddling in economic affairs. Governments that are able to easily deploy coercive measures are governments that tend to be less constrained and they can fall prey to rent-seeking and regulatory capture. They will also tend to disregard property rights and economic freedom. This implies slower rates of economic growth. As a result, there is a trade-off that exists: either you get fast economic growth with higher rates of certain infectious diseases or you get slow economic growth with lower rates of certain infectious diseases (Troesken concentrates mostly on smallpox and yellow fever). The graphic below illustrates this point of Troesken. Countries like Germany – with its strong centralizing Prussian tradition – were able to generate very low levels of deaths from infectious diseases. But, they were poorer than the United States. The latter country had a constitutional framework that limited the ability of local and state governments to adopt even mild measures like mandatory vaccination. Thus, that meant higher mortality levels but the same constitutional constraints permitted economic growth and thus the higher level of living standards enjoyed by Americans relative to the Germans.

fullsizerender

But Troesken’s story does not end there.  Economic growth has some palliative health effects (in part the McKeown hypothesis*) whereby we have a better food supply and access to better housing or less demanding jobs. However, in the long-run economic growth means that new sectors of activity can emerge. For example, as we grow richer, we can probably expend more resources on drugs research to extend life expectancy. We can also have access to more medical care in general.  These fruits take some time to materialize as they grow more slowly. Nonetheless, they do form a palliative effect that contributes to health improvements.

However, there is an analogy that allows us to see why these palliative effects are important in any political economy of public health provision. This analogy relates to forestry. The health outcomes fruits from a “coercive institutional tree” can only be picked once. Once they are picked, the tree will yield no more fruits.  However, the yield from that single harvest is considerable. In comparison, the “economic growth tree” yields fewer and smaller fruits, but it keeps yielding fruits. It never stops yielding fruits. In the long-run, that tree outperforms the other tree. The problem is that you cannot have both trees. If you chose one, you can’t have the other.

In this light, public health issues become incredibly harder to decipher and understand. However, we can see a much richer wealth of information under this light. In writing the Pox of Liberty, Troesken is enlightening and anyone doing health economics should read (and absorb his work) as it is the first comprehensive treatise of the political economy of public health.


* I should note that I think that the McKeown hypothesis is often unfairly lambasted and although I have some reservations myself, it can be adapted to fit within a wider theoretical approach regarding institutions – like Troesken does. 

How Well Has Cuba Managed To Improve Health Outcomes? (part 3)

As part of my series of blog post reconsidering health outcomes in Cuba, I argued that other countries were able to generate substantial improvements in life expectancy even if Cuba is at the top. Then I pointed out that non-health related measures made Cubans so poor as to create a paradoxical outcome of depressing mortality (Cubans don’t have cars, they don’t get in car accidents, life expectancy is higher which is not an indicator of health care performance). Today, I move to the hardest topic to obtain information on: refugees.

I have spent the last few weeks trying to understand how the Cuban refugees are counted in the life tables. After scouring the website of the World Health Organization and the archives of Statistics Canada during my winter break, I could not find the answer.  And it matters. A lot.

To be clear, a life table shows the probability that an individual of age will die by age X+1 (known as Qx). With a life table, you will obtain age-specific death rates(known as Mx), life expectancy at different points and life expectancy at birth (Lx)(Where x is age). Basically, this is the most important tool a demographer can possess. Without something like that, its hard to say anything meaningful in terms of demographic comparison (although not impossible).The most common method of building such a table is known as a “static” method where we either compare the population structure by age at a single point in time or where we evaluate the age of deaths (which we can compare with the number of persons of each group alive – Ax). The problem with such methods is that static life tables need to be frequently updated because we are assuming stable age structure.

When there is important migration, Qx becomes is not “mortality” but merely the chance of exiting the population either by death of migration. When there are important waves of migration (in or out), one must account for age of the entering/departing population to arrive at a proper estimates of “exits” from the population at each age point that separate exits by deaths or exits (entries) by migration.

As a result, migration – especially if large – creates two problems in life tables. It changes the age structure of the population and so, the table must be frequently updated in order to get Ax right. It also changes the structure of mortality (exits). (However, this is only a problem if the age structure of migrants is different from the age structure of the overall population).

Since 2005, the annual number of migrants from Cuba to the United States has fluctuated between 10,000 and 60,000. This means that, on an annual basis, 0.1% to 0.5% of Cuba’s population is leaving the country. This is not a negligible flow (in the past, the flow was much larger – sometimes reaching north of 1% of the population). Thus, the issue would matter to the estimation of life tables. The problem is we do not know how Cuba has accounted for migration on both mortality and the reference populations! More importantly, we do not know how those who die during migration are measured.

Eventually, Ax will be adjusted through census-based updates (so there will only be a drift between censuses). However, if the Cuban government counts all the migrants as alive as they arrive in a foreign country as if none died along the way, it is underestimating the number of deaths. Basically, when the deaths of refugees and emigrants are not adequately factored into survival schedules, mortality schedules are be biased downward (especially between censuses as a result of poor denominator) and life expectancy would be accordingly biased upward.

Now, I am willing to reconsider my opinion on this particular point if someone indicates some study that has escaped my gaze (my Spanish is very, to put it euphemistically, poor). However, when I am able to find such information for other Latin American countries like Chile or Costa Rica and not for Cuba, I am skeptical of the value of the health statistics that people cite.

The other parts of How Well Has Cuba Managed To Improve Health Outcomes?

  1. Life Expectancy Changes, 1960 to 2014
  2. Car ownership trends playing in favor of Cuba, but not a praiseworthy outcome

Ten best papers/books in economic history of the last decades (part 2)

Yesterday, I published part 1 of what I deemed were the best papers and books in the field of economic history of the last few decades. I posted only the first five and I am now posting the next five.

  • Carlos, Ann M., and Frank D. Lewis. Commerce by a frozen sea: Native Americans and the European fur trade. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

This book is not frequently cited (only 30 cites according to Google Scholar), but it has numerous gems for scholars to include in their future work. The reason for this is that Carlos and Lewis have pushed the frontier of economic history into the history of Natives in the New World. This issue of Natives in North America is one of those topics that irritates me to no end as an economic historian. A large share of the debates on economic growth in the New World have been centered on the idea that there was either some modest growth (less than 0.5% per year in per capita income) or no growth at all (which is still a strong testimonial given that the population exploded). But all that attention centres on comparing “whites” (and slaves) in the New World with everyone in the Old World. In the first decades of the colonies of Canada and the United States, aboriginals clearly outnumbered the new settlers (in Canada, the native population around 1736 was estimated at roughly 20,000 which was slightly less than the population of Quebec – the largest colony). Excluding aboriginals, who comprised such a large share of the population, at the starting point will indubitably affect the path of growth measured thereafter. My “gut feeling” is that anyone who includes natives in GDP accounting will lower the starting point dramatically. That will increase the rate of long-term growth. Additionally, the output that aboriginals provided was non-negligible and probably grew more rapidly than their population (the rising volume of furs exported was much greater than their population growth). This is why Carlos and Lewis’s work is so interesting: because it is essentially the first to assemble economic continuous time series regarding trade between trappers and traders, the beaver population, property rights and living standards of natives. From their work, all that is needed is a few key defensible assumptions in order to include natives inside estimates of living standards. From there, I would not be surprised that most estimates of growth in the North American colonies would be significantly altered and the income levels relative to Europe would also be altered.

  • Floud, Roderick, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris, and Sok Chul Hong. The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the western world since 1700. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

This book is in the list because it is a broad overview of the anthropometric history that has arisen since the 1980s as a result of the work of Robert Fogel. I put this book in the list because the use of anthropometric data allows us to study the multiple facets of living standards. For long, I have been annoyed at the idea of this unidimensional concept of “living standards” often portrayed in the general public (which I am willing to forgive) and the economics profession (which is unforgivable). In life, everything is a trade-off.  A peasant who left the countryside in the 19th century to get higher wages in a city manufacture estimated that the disamenities of the cities were not sufficient to offset wage gains (see notably Jeffrey Williamson’s Coping with City Growth during the British Industrial Revolution on this). For example, cities tended to have higher food prices than rural areas (the advantage of cities was that there were services no one in the countryside could obtain).  Cities were also more prone to epidemics and pollution implied health costs. Taken together, these factors could show up in the biological standard of living, notably on heights. This is known as the “Antebellum puzzle” where the mean heights of individuals in America (and other countries like Canada) fell while there was real income and wage growth. The “Antebellum puzzle” that was unveiled by the work of Fogel and those who followed in his wake represents the image that living standards are not unidimensional. Human development is about more than incomes. Human development is about agency and the ability to choose a path for a better and more satisfying life. However, with agency comes opportunity costs. A choice implies that another path was renounced. In the measurement of living standards, we should never forget the path that was abandoned. Peasants abandoned lower rates of infant mortality, lower overall rates of mortality, the lower levels of crowding and pollution, the lower food prices and the lower crime rates of the countryside in favor of the greater diversity of goods and services, the higher wages, the thicker job market, the less physically demanding jobs and the more secure source of income (although precarious, this was better than the volatile outcomes in farming). This was their trade-off and this is what the anthropometric literature has allowed us to glean. For this alone, this is probably the greatest contribution in the field of economic history of the last decades.

  • De Vries, Jan. The industrious revolution: consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Was there an industrious revolution before the industrial revolution? More precisely, did people increase their labour supply during the 17th and 18th centuries which lead to output growth? In proposing this question, de Vries provided a theoretical bridge of major significance between the observations of wage behavior and incomes in Europe during the modern era. For example, while wages seemed to be stagnating, incomes seemed to be increasing (in the case of England as Broadberry et al. indicated). The only explanation is that workers increased their labor supply? Why would they do that? What happened that caused them to increase the amount of labor they were willing to supply? The arrival of new goods (sugar, tobacco etc.) caused them to change their willingness to work. This is a strong illustration of how preferences can change more or less rapidly (when new opportunities are unveiled). In fact, Mark Koyama (who blogs here) managed to insert this narrative inside a very simple restatement of Gary Becker’s model of time use. Either you have leisure that is cheap but time-consuming (think of leisure in the late middle ages) or leisure that is more expensive but does not consume too much time (think the consumption of tea, sugar and tobacco). Imagine you only have the time-expensive leisure which you value at level X. Now, imagine that the sugar and tea arrive and, although you pay a higher price, it provides more utility than the level and it takes less time. In such a context, you will likely change your preferences between leisure and work. I am grossly oversimplifying Mark’s point here, but the idea is that the industrious revolution argument advanced by de Vries can easily fit inside a simple neoclassical outlook. On top of solving many puzzles, it also shows that one does not need to engage in some fanciful flight of Marxian theory (I prefer Marxian to Marxist because it is one typo away from being Martian which would adequately summarize my view of Marxism as a social theory). If it fits inside the simpler model, then you don’t need the rest.  De Vries does just that.

  • Anderson, Terry Lee, and Peter Jensen Hill. The not so wild, wild west: Property rights on the frontier. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Governance is not the same as government (in fact, they can be mutually exclusive). In recent years, I have been heavily influenced by Elinor Ostrom’s work on how communities govern the commons in very subtle (but elaborate) ways without the use of coercion. These institutional arrangements are hard to simplify into one variable for a regression, but they are theoretically simple to explain: people respond to incentives. Ostrom’s entire work shows that people on the front line of problems generally have the best incentives to get the right solution because they have skin in the game. What her work shows is that individuals govern themselves (see also Mike Munger’s Choosing in Groups) by generating micro-institutions that allow exchanges to continue. Terry Anderson and Peter Hill provide the best illustration in economic history in that regard by studying the frontier of the American west. Settlers moved to the American West faster than the reach of government and the frontier was thus an area more or less void of government action. So, how did people police themselves? Was it the wild west? No, it was not. Private security firms provided most of the policing, mining clubs established property rights without the need for government, farmers established constitutions in voluntary associations that they formed and many “public goods” were provided privately. The point of Anderson and Hill is that governance did exist on the frontier in a way that demonstrates the ability of voluntary actions (as opposed to coercive government actions) to generate sustainable and efficient solutions. The book has a rich theoretical framework on top of a substantial body of evidence regarding the emergence of institutions. Any good economic historian should own and read this book.

  • Vedder, Richard K., and Lowell E. Gallaway. Out of work: unemployment and government in twentieth-century America. NYU Press, 1997.

The last book on the list is an underground classic for me. Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway are very good economic historians. Most of their output was produced from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, as the 1990s came, they moved towards the Austrian school of Economics. With them, they brought a strong econometric knowledge – a rarity among Austrian scholars. They attempted one of the first (well-regarded) econometric studies that relied on Austrian theory of the labor-market (a mixture of New Classical Theory with Austrian Theory). Their goal was to explain variations in unemployment in the United States by variations in “adjusted real wages” (i.e. unit labor costs) all else being equal. At the time of the publication, they used very advanced econometric techniques. The book was well received and even caught the attention of Brad DeLong who disagreed with it and debated Vedder and Gallaway in the pages of Critical Review. Although there are pieces that I disagree with, the book has mostly withstood the test of time. The core insights of Out of Work regarding the Great Depression (and many of its horrible policies like the National Industrial Recovery Act) have been conserved by many like Scott Sumner in his Midas Paradox and they feature prominently in the works of scholars like Lee Ohanian, Harold Cole, Albrecht Ristchl and others. In the foreword to the book, they mention that D.N. McCloskey (then the editor of the Journal of Economic History) had pushed hard for them to publish their work regarding the 1920s and 1930s. The insights regarding the “Great Depression of 1946” (a pun to ridicule the idea that the postwar reduction in government expenditures led to a massive reduction in incomes) have been generally conserved by Robert Higgs in his Journal of Economic History article I mentioned yesterday (and in this article as well) and even by Alexander Field in his Great Leap Forward However, Out of Work remains an underground classic that is filled with substantial pieces of information and data that remains unused. There are numerous unexploited insights (some of which Vedder and Gallaway have followed on) as well. The book should be mandatory reading for any economic historian.