North Korea at the North Sea?

Yesterday, both Houses of Dutch Parliament jointly opened the parliamentary year, which is always held on the third Tuesday in September, and is known as “Budget Day.” Normally, there is not much pomp and glory in the Low Lands, but on “Little Princes Day” (as the day is literally called), we go all-out: the King and Queen are driven in a horse-pulled carriage to the Hall of Knights, the oldest part of the parliamentary buildings (built around 1250), surrounded by military troops in full ceremonial dress. The King reads his speech (actually written by and under full political responsibility of the Prime Minister and cabinet) from a huge throne, announcing the government’s plans for the next year. Male ministers in morning coats, ladies in dresses and hats, with the powerful elites also assembled.

king and queen
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima entering the Hall of Knights (source)

After the reading, the Royal couple make their way back to one of their palaces in the centre of The Hague, returning once to greet the masses from the balcony.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Finance officially presents the 2018 budget to the Lower House. The separate budgets of all departments are laws, which will have to pass both Houses before 31 December. This process is normally preceded by a two day debate on “the general state of the country,” but this year it is skipped because there is only a caretaker government in office. It awaits the finalization of negotiations for a new government, which started right after the elections on 15 March. Still no government is formed, although it is widely expected that a four-party coalition will be presented within a few weeks, consisting of small Christian left wingers, centre Christian Democrats, and two social liberal parties, D66, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD.

Although much improved since the low point of the Great Recession, around 2011-2012, the public finances are still shocking from a classical liberal perspective. The income of the national government is 285 billion Euro (around 338.5 billion USD), which is 43% of GDP.

It consists mainly of several mandatory insurance premiums for collective arrangements (112.2 billion Euro), income tax (55.4 billion; the highest bracket of 51.5% tax applies to all personal income over 68.507 Euro), and VAT (52.8 billion). The rest are mainly specific taxes, related to companies, the environment, excises, dividends, et cetera. In 2011, the public share of GDP was still 47%, while in the 1980s it reached peaks of around 60%. Not exactly anywhere near an ideal liberal situation, no matter what liberal persuasion you are. Personally, I would argue that 25% should be the max for a decent set of state tasks, but I am sure that makes me some weird Northern European commie in some American libertarian eyes!

The situation is even more dire if we see where that money is spent. Health care (80.4 billion euro) and social security (79 billion) are always in competition as the largest spending departments. So that is 56% of the budget already and both increase annually, no matter the economic circumstances. The third post is public education (35.4 billion), followed by funds for provinces and municipalities (24.4 billion), foreign affairs and foreign aid (12), police and judiciary (10.3), defense (8.4), and infrastructure and environment (also 8.4), with the other departments taking parts of the rest. Despite a very rare expected budgetary surplus of 7.8 billion in 2018, the national debt is still 53.7% of GDP. Perhaps not bad in international comparison, still not good for any liberal.

These numbers are only part of the story, because there are also numerous local taxes, and the number of liberty-inhibiting regulations, from European, national, provincial and local origin are staggering. There is not one really free market, and there are hardly parts of individual life not regulated or influenced by the state. A comparison with North Korea is of course still far-fetched, yet socialism is alive and kicking on the North Sea shores.

In my view it is evidence of the remarkable power of capitalism that The Netherlands is still one of the richest countries on earth, a global top 15 economy (GDP per capita), with only 17 million inhabitants. No matter how hard you curb it, the capitalist system still delivers amazing results. Of course, the opportunity costs of the Dutch regulatory state are very high. In terms of personal liberty there are not many better places on the planet. Yet in other fields it is a different story. Economic freedom is a mess, which means that the material aspects of personal freedom are seriously restricted. Yet the worst is the mentality. Sadly, most Dutch have traveled the whole Hayekian Road to Serfdom, making a shift to classical liberalism highly unlikely.

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On Financial Repression and ♀ Labor Supply after 1945

I just came back from the Economic History Association meeting in San Jose. There are so many papers that are worth mentioning (and many have got my brains going, see notably the work of Nuno Palma on monetary neutrality after the “discovery” of the New World). However, the thing that really had me thinking was the panel on which one could find Barry Eichengreen and Carmen Reinhart (who was an early echo of the keynote speech by Michael Bordo).

Here’s why : Barry Eichengreen seemed uncomfortable with the current state of affairs regarding financial regulation and pointed out that the after-war period was marked by rapid growth and strong financial regulation. Then, Reinhart and Bordo emphasized the role of financial repression in depressing growth – notably in the period praised by Eichengreen. I have priors that make more favorable to the Reinhart-Bordo position, but I can’t really deny the point made by Eichengreen.

This had me thinking for some time during and after the talks. Both positions are hard to contest but they are mutually exclusive. True, it is possible that growth was strong in spite of financial repression, but some can argue that by creating some stability, regulations actually improved growth in a way that surpassed the negative effects caused by repression. But, could there be another explanation?

Elsewhere on this blog, I have pointed out that I am not convinced that the Thirty Glorious were that “Glorious”.  In line with my Unified Growth Theory inclinations (don’t put me in that camp, but don’t exclude me either I am still cautious on this), I believe that we need to account for demographic factors that foil long-term comparisons. For example, in a paper on Canadian economic growth, I pointed out that growth from 1870 to today is much more modest once we divide output by household-size population rather than overall population (see blog post here that highlights my paper). Later, I pointed out the ideas behind another paper (which I am still writing and for which I need more data, notably to replicate something like this paper) regarding the role of the unmeasured household economy. There, I argued that the shift of women from the household to the market over-measures the actual increase in output. After all, to arrive at the net value of increased labor force participation, one must deduce the value of foregone outputs in the household – something we know little about in spite of the work of people like Valerie Ramey.

Both these factors suggest the need for corrections based on demographic changes to better reflect actual living standards. These demographic changes were most pronounced in the 1945-1975 era – that of the era of rapid growth highlighted by Eichengreen and of financial repression highlighted by Reinhart and Bordo. If these changes were most momentous in that period, it is fair to say that the measurement errors they induce are also largest in that era.

So, simply put, could it be that these were not years of rapid growth but of modest growth that were overestimated?  If so, that would put the clash of ideas between Bordo-Reinhart and Eichengreen in a different light – albeit one more favorable to the former than the latter.

But heh, this is me speculating about where research could be oriented to guide some deeply relevant policy questions.

The Cost of ‘Free’ – or why I don’t like freeware

This is a partial response to Fabio Rojas recent post on the fate of Stata, a statistics package, given the rise of a free alternative, R. Rojas and others have many reasons for why R is a good package, but for now I wish to deal with the argument that it being ‘free’ is a virtue.

R is free, but I see it as a fault because it reveals that it doesn’t have a devoted support system and because it isn’t free at all. It’s actually very costly!

If you’ve spent any time with an economist you should know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If R is free we should not simply assume it is better. To the contrary we should ask why it is free. As I have tried to argue elsewhere, it is because when you purchase software you aren’t just purchasing a few lines of code. You’re purchasing the support system that comes with it. When a company purchases Stata, or any commercial software, they do so with the expectation that they can call a dedicated hotline for troubleshooting. As software has evolved you’ve seen companies experiment with pricing to acknowledge the fact that we don’t purchase a one time software but a continuous support system.

Consider Xbox or Playstation’s online services. Their use is charged on a per time basis because it costs money to run servers and provide customer support. Even ‘freemium’ games, which nominally don’t require any money to play, survive off micro transactions which enable companies to earn steady revenues in exchange for continuing support and new content. I would not be surprised if freemium statistical software is tried in the future – access to basic regressions is free but more advanced models cost money to run. I half joke.

But let’s assume you’re good at coding and don’t need much support outside of a few days reading an R book. Should you praise R for being ‘free’? No, because you still paid the time value of your time. Every hour spent learning how to code in R is an hour you could have spent doing any number of things.

Now to be clear, you may still want to learn R if it frees up your time in the future by automating X process. This post isn’t to argue against adopting R. My point is only to say that it isn’t free in a meaningful sense. Adopting R costs in the sense that you’re giving up a devoted support system and value of time equal to how long it takes you to become proficient in it.

It’s possible that once you account for those things R is still ‘cheaper’ than commercial software like Stata or SPSS. That is an empirical question beyond the scope of this post.

A Little More on “Price Gouging”

In my previous post on this subject I argued that the critics of “anti price-gouging laws” are mistakenly assuming that is possible to satisfy demand at the pre-natural disaster price. That is, sadly of course, fiction. It it not our reality anymore and we are better accepting the new situation than blindly deny it. As many economists are explaining these days, to not let prices increase after a natural disaster does more harm than letting prices increase. This can easily be seen in a demand and supply graph.

Prige gouging

Consider first just the lines in black. Those lines represent the pre natural disaster situation. What is considered “normal prices”. At price p0, a quantity q0 of a good is traded in the market (i.e. bottles of water.)

Now there is a shock. A hurricane hits this region and demand increases (shifts to the right). This is the demand line in color red. The red dotted line that extends to the right shows the size of the shortage (q2 – q1) at the “normal and fair” price.

Price gouging is an emotional loaded word, but it doesn’t have any specific economic meaning. How does “price gouging” show up in this graph? It is the increase in price from p0 to p1. This is the increase in price required to satisfy the higher demand and provide the extra number of goods (q1 – q0). No… supply is not horizontal.

What happens if price increases are banned? Then at the pre-crisis quantity (q0), consumers are willing to pay p2, a price even higher than price gouging. This means two things. First, a number of people in need will be unable to acquire the goods (the empty shelf problem). Second, that the actual total cost (to those who acquire the quantity q0) is p2, not p0. The difference between the price in the store and total cost falls into waiting in long lines, visiting a long number of stores, bribing producers (yes… with natural disaster price controls also lead to black markets), calling favors., etc. Any principles of microeconomic textbook has plenty of more examples under the price ceiling discussion.

There are three scenarios being discussed here.

  1. Quantity q0 at price p0
  2. Quantity q1 at price p1
  3. Quantity q0 at price p2

The natural disaster makes scenario 1 impossible. And it is not clear that scenario 3 is better for those in need than scenario 2. Less goods are provided at a higher total cost than in scenario 2.

One final remark. Note that in this analysis the natural disaster only affected demand. Of course, it is quite likely that supply would also be affected. The point, however, is to show that prices are not pushed up only by produces. As we can see in this case, it is consumers who are increasing the price and producers reacting to the new behavior of consumers.

Price Gouging: Reality vs Fiction

In a previous post I comment on a too common economic fallacy, that a natural disaster is good for the economy because of its alleged impact on GDP. Economic fallacies are not the only misconceptions gaining momentum during a natural disaster, but a confusion between reality and fiction becomes also quite common. The issue of price gouging provides a good example of this situation.

After a natural disaster, the price of certain goods such as water or gas, increases significantly. This is seen as an immoral exploitation by merchants who are taking advantage of the people affected by the natural disaster. Even though in this post I want to comment on another issue, it is worth mentioning that the now limited resources should be allocated to those in most need (rather than, for instance, to whoever happens to be the first one in line.) And unless someone has a crystal ball, there is no way of knowing who is in most need without changes in relative prices.

The mention to reality versus fiction refers to the fact that the critics of price gouging seem to (implicitly) assume that the natural disaster did not occur. It is plausible to assume that an event like this would (1) shift the supply to the left [reduce supply of goods] and (2) shift the demand to the right [increase the demand of goods.] At the usual (or “normal”) price these goods are in serious shortage.

This means that in the event of a natural disaster the option is between (1) having goods at a higher price or (2) not having goods at the “normal” price. This is the new reality. The old and normal reality does not exist anymore. To limit price gouging results in a lower price in the store, but not goods on the shelf. This would not help those in need. The fiction consists in thinking that a larger supply can be secured without an increase in the price (why should we assume supply is horizontal when these goods usually have a low elasticity?) An efficient policy would secure the provision of goods rather than secure a low price without the goods. Reality, rather than fiction, should be the first driver of a policy designed to assist during a natural disaster. As Milton Friedman insisted, a policy is to be valuated by its results (or design), not by its intentions.

The first rule for an efficient policy should be to not get in the way of changes in relative prices. Otherwise help will become erratic and inefficient. It might be more efficient, for instance, to make use of firms specialized in logistics (i.e. firms such as Walmart) and subsidize the demand than start a price control policy. For instance, a tax credit or a check can be sent to those affected by the natural disaster allowing them to pay the now higher prices. Similarly, a subsidy can be given to those firms bringing goods to the damaged areas (who says the government has the monopoly of charity or that the only one who can do it efficiently?) A policy on these lines would be more efficient than interfering with relative prices.

However, some opponents of price gouging seem to be more interested in damaging merchants than in making sure resources will be efficiently allocated among the ones affected by the natural disaster. Those who do not oppose price gouging do so because they have the affected ones first in line. It is not about merchant’s revenue, it is about allocating goods efficiently. Damaging the merchants should not be more important than worsening the situation of those in need.

No, natural disasters are not good for the economy.

Every time there is a natural disaster old economic fallacies make their appearance. And they are usually always the same. In particular, the argument that a natural disaster is good for the economy. This should make little sense. Wealth is not created by destroying things. A natural disaster destroys wealth, doesn’t create it. I doubt anyone affected by a hurricane would argue that he is better off after the natural disaster than before.

The argument that an event such as a natural disaster is good for the economy rests in the positive impact seen in GDP (as is argued) after the natural event. If GDP increases, then the economy is doing better. But this is a misreading of GDP. This variable is a flow of wealth, it is not a stock of accumulated wealth. It is possible that wealth creation (flow) increases at the same time the stock of wealth is decreasing. And this is what happens during a natural disaster.

Imagine that someone’s house caught fire and burns down. Because of this situation, this person decides to start working extra hours to increase his income and be able to buy a new one. The extra hours makes his income (GDP) increase. But his situation is considerable worst because he lost his stock of wealth (remember Bastiat’s broken window fallacy…?). Arguing that a natural disaster (or a war, etc…) is good for the economy is like arguing that this person is better of because he has to work extra hours to recover his loss.

This is just another case of a too common fallacy in economics. We know that if the economy is doing better the result will be better GDP and unemployment indicators. But from observing a better GDP and unemployment indicators we cannot, and should not, conclude that the economy is doing better. More important than observing what is happening to GDP is understanding why is changing its behavior.

It could be argued that one of the problem of the Keynesian view of the world is the focus on what happens to output and unemployment rather than why these variables are moving. Not surprisingly, we get to the conclusion that going to war (or having a natural disaster) would be a good way to achieve full employment.