The minimum wage induced spur of technological innovation ought not be praised

In a recent article at Reason.comChristian Britschgi argues that “Government-mandated price hikes do a lot of things. Spurring technological innovation is not one of them”. This is in response to the self-serve kiosks in fast-food restaurants that seem to have appeared everywhere following increases in the minimum wage.

In essence, his argument is that minimum wages do not induce technological innovation. That is an empirical question. I am willing to consider that this is not the most significant of adjustment margins to large changes in the minimum wage. The work of Andrew Seltzer on the minimum wage during the Great Depression in the United States suggests that at the very least it ought not be discarded.  Britschgi does not provide such evidence, he merely cites anecdotal pieces of support. Not that anecdotes are bad, but those that are cited come from the kiosk industry – hardly a neutral source.

That being said, this is not what makes me contentious towards the article. It is the implicit presupposition contained within: that technological innovation is good.

No, technological innovation is not necessarily good. Firms can use two inputs (capital and labor) and, given prices and return rates, there is an optimal allocation of both. If you change the relative prices of each, you change the optimal allocation. However, absent the regulated price change, the production decisions are optimal. With the regulated price change, the production decisions are the best available under the constraint of working within a suboptimal framework. Thus, you are inducing a rate of technological innovation which is too fast relative to the optimal rate.

You may think that this is a little luddite of me to say, but it is not. It is a complement to the idea that there are “skill-biased” technological change (See notably this article of Daron Acemoglu and this one by Bekman et al.). If the regulated wage change affects a particular segment of the labor (say the unskilled portions – e.g. those working in fast food restaurants), it changes the optimal quantity of that labor to hire. Sure, it bumps up demand for certain types of workers (e.g. machine designers and repairmen) but it is still suboptimal. One should not presuppose that ipso facto, technological change is good. What matters is the “optimal” rate of change. In this case, one can argue that the minimum wage (if pushed up too high) induces a rate of technological change that is too fast and will act in disfavor of unskilled workers.

As such, yes, the artificial spurring of technological change should not be deemed desirable!

Is minimalism immoral?

I came across a simple but important question on Quora: Is it wrong to aspire to be a minimalist? Doesn’t this negatively affect the country’s GDP?

I see two big lessons here: 1) wise use of metrics requires wisdom… i.e. appropriate interpretation and critical thinking. 2) Maximization is just one version of one part of the whole story. (There are also important questions to ask about what we can expect from others, but I’ll leave that for the comments.)

Readers of NOL should be familiar with the notion that GDP is only an imperfect proxy for well being. But not everyone is so we have to repeat ourselves. There’s what we’re after, and there’s what we can measure, and the two are not the same. GDP is a really clever way to aggregate total production in an economy, but production is only valuable to the extent we’re producing the things that actually improve people’s lives. It’s easy for busy people to confuse a proxy measure for the latent variable we actually care about, so we need someone whispering in the emperor’s ear “the metric is not the mission.

Economics is easier to describe using the simplifying assumption that people want more stuff. It’s easy to forget that people also want more leisure (and so less work). This is a subtle reappearance of the seen and unseen. We can see when someone gets a cool new car and we can’t see when someone has a fun evening with friends and family. We have to check our bias towards trying to get more stuff and remember that reducing work is another feature of human flourishing.

On “strawmanning” some people and inequality

For some years now, I have been interested in the topic of inequality. One of the angles that I have pursued is a purely empirical one in which I attempt to improvement measurements. This angle has yielded two papers (one of which is still in progress while the other is still in want of a home) that reconsider the shape of the U-curve of income inequality in the United States since circa 1900.

The other angle that I have pursued is more theoretical and is a spawn of the work of Gordon Tullock on income redistribution. That line of research makes a simple point: there are some inequalities that are, in normative terms, worrisome while others are not. The income inequality stemming from the career choices of a benedictine monk and a hedge fund banker are not worrisome. The income inequality stemming from being a prisoner of one’s birth or from rent-seekers shaping rules in their favor is worrisome.  Moreover, some interventions meant to remedy inequalities might actually make things worse in the long-run (some articles even find that taxing income for the sake of redistribution may increase inequality if certain conditions are present – see here).  I have two articles on this (one forthcoming, the other already published) and a paper still in progress (with Rosolino Candela), but they are merely an extension of the aforementioned Gordon Tullock and some other economists like Randall Holcombe, William Watson and Vito Tanzi. After all, the point that a “first, do no harm” policy to inequality might be more productive is not novel (all that it needs is a deep exploration and a robust exposition).

Notice that there is an implicit assumption in this line of research: inequality is a topic worth studying. This is why I am annoyed by statements like those that Gabriel Zucman made to ProMarket. When asked if he was getting pushback for his research on inequality (which is novel and very important), Zucman answers the following:

Of course, yes. I get pushback, let’s say not as much on the substance oftentimes as on the approach. Some people in economics feel that economics should be only about efficiency, and that talking about distributional issues and inequality is not what economists should be doing, that it’s something that politicians should be doing.

This is “strawmanning“. There is no economist who thinks inequality is not a worthwhile topic. Literally none. True, economists may have waned in their interest towards the topic for some years but it never became a secondary topic. Major articles were published in major journals throughout the 1990s (which is often identified as a low point in the literature) – most of them groundbreaking enough to propel the topic forward a mere decade later. This should not be surprising given the heavy ideological and normative ramifications of studying inequality. The topic is so important to all social sciences that no one disregards it. As such, who are these “some people” that Zucman alludes too?

I assume that “some people” are strawmen substitutes for those who, while agreeing that inequality is an important topic, disagree with the policy prescriptions and the normative implications that Zucman draws from his work. The group most “hostile” to the arguments of Zucman (and others such as Piketty, Saez, Atkinson and Stiglitz) is the one that stems from the public choice tradition. Yet, economists in the public-choice tradition probably give distributional issues a more central role in their research than Zucman does. They care about institutional arrangements and the rules of the game in determining outcomes. The very concept of rent-seeking, so essential to public choice theory, relates to how distributional coalitions can emerge to shape the rules of the game in a way that redistribute wealth from X to Y in ways that are socially counterproductive. As such, rent-seeking is essentially a concept that relates to distributional issues in a way that is intimately related to efficiency.

The argument by Zucman to bolster his own claim is one of the reason why I am cynical towards the times we live in. It denotes a certain tribalism that demonizes the “other side” in order to avoid engaging in them. That tribalism, I believe (but I may be wrong), is more prevalent than in the not-so-distant past. Strawmanning only makes the problem worse.

Fogel on economics and ideology

Many, upon reading the conclusions of economists, believe that economics has an ideological bent. I often respond that this is not the case. True, the “window” of political opinions in economics is narrower but that is largely because the adhesion of economists to methodological individualism precludes certain ideological views that rest on holistic approaches or concepts. However, when you consider more complex situations than “party affiliation”, you will find economists all over the place. They will often cross ideological lines or even have a foot in two antagonistic camps.

Recently, I was reading Robert Fogel’s lectures on the “Slavery debates” which retells the intellectual history of American slavery from U.B. Phillips to … well … Fogel himself. One must remember that Fogel was, and remained from what I can tell, a quite strongly left-leaning economist for most of his life (see here). As such, it is hard to consider Fogel as an ideologue preaching for free market economics. Yet, in the lectures, Fogel (p.19) makes a point that supports the contention that I often make regarding economists and ideology that I believe must be shared:

The ability to view Phillips (NDLR: the dominant interpretation of slavery pre-1960) in a new light was facilitated by the sudden intrusion of a large corps of economists into the slavery debates during the 1960s. This intrusion was welcomed by neither the defenders of the Phillips tradition nor the neoabolitionist school led by Stampp (NDLR: Kenneth Stampp, author of The Peculiar Institution). The cliometricians, as they were called, refused to be bound by the established rules of engagement, and they blithely crossed ideological wires in a manner that perplexed and exasperated traditional historians on both sides of the ideological divide.

Given that the source of this quotation is Fogel, I admit that I am particularly fond of this passage. Maybe the distrust towards economists is because economists can be both friend and foes to established interlocutors in a given discussion.

ICE as Education Planners

Yale recently reclassified economics as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and other schools may follow suit. It’s a public-spirited regulatory arbitrage–by reclassifying to “Econometric and Quantitative Economics” they make it easier for international students to continue working in the U.S. after graduation. But by capitulating to regulatory nonsense, they’re sacrificing the long-run vitality of the field.

Here’s how this whole classification thing works: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a “STEM Designated Degree Program List” that specifies which programs on the Department of Education’s list of degree programs qualify as STEM. Students with degrees in these fields get special status as far as immigration. ICE’s list includes (among others) several psychology programs and three social science programs: Archaeology; Cyber/Computer Forensics and Counterterrorism; and Econometrics and Quantitative Economics.

What can we infer from this? That the feds are defining STEM narrowly, with a greater emphasis on engineering than science. STEM is about training people to do science-y work with practical applications. Basic research gets lip service, but only really matters so far as it’s likely to have clear applications in the future.

Economics has some parts that fit into such a view of STEM. Even I’ll admit (controversially for Austrians and Anarcho-Capitalists) that positive-sum social engineering a) is possible (in modest increments), and b) has something to learn from economics. But to include all of econ in STEM would require using a broader definition of STEM.

So what’s the upshot? High profile departments will focus more on a narrower part of economics pushing much of the field to the periphery. This is a retreat into more isolated academic silos. “Economics, general” leaves a vague space around a department, but taking a more specific designation means they can be held to more specific expectations. It might have little impact on the day-to-day life of a department, but in the long run they’re hamstringing themselves.

The problem these departments are trying to address is that ICE has too much power. But by playing this game they’re letting ICE play central planner in the education industry!

Divergence and Convergence within Italy

Two years, I wrote a post on this blog on the process of regional convergence in Italy. In that post, I made the observation that it seems that, economically, Italy was as fragmented at the time of the unification as it is today which made it an oddity in terms of regional convergence. To make that claim, I used this table of relatively sparsed out observations produced by Emanuele Felice: which was published in the Economic History Reviewitaliangdp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As one can see, there is a pronounced “lack” of integration for the Italy in terms of living standards. This is reinforced by a more “continuous” set of estimates produced, again, by Emanuele Felice (this time, its a working paper of the Bank of Italy) that now include the 1870s and go to 2011 (as opposed to 2001). This is the result, which I find fascinating. The first graph shows GDP per capita – for which there is divergence to 1951 and then a mild convergence thereafter but still well above the levels at the time of unification.  More fascinating is the fact that productivity is at its most integrated since unification (2nd figure) suggesting a divergence in levels of labor activity (3rd figure). In these three graphs, you have a neat summary of Italian labor markets since 1870.

Italian Convergence

The great global trend for the equality of well-being since 1900

Some years ago, I read The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany. It was my first exposition to the claim that, globally, there has been a long-trend in the equality of well-being. The observation made by Goklany which had a dramatic effect on me was that many countries who were, at the time of his writing, as rich (incomes per capita) as Britain in 1850 had life expectancy and infant mortality levels well superior to 1850 Britain. Ever since, I accumulated the statistics on that regard and I often tell my students that when comes the time to “dispell” myths regarding the improvement in living standards since circa 1800 (note: people are generally unable to properly grasp the actual improvement in living standards).

Some years after, I discovered the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who is a cliometrician who (I think I told him that when I met him) influenced me deeply in my work regarding the measurement of living standards and who wrote this paper which I will discuss here.  His paper, and his work in general, shows that globally the inequality in incomes has faltered since the 1970s.  That is largely the result of the economic rise of India and China (the world’s two largest antipoverty programs). Figure1Leandro

However, when extending his measurements to include life expectancy and schooling in order to capture “human development” (the idea that development is not only about incomes but the ability to exercise agency – i.e. the acquisition of positive liberty), the collapse in “human development” inequality (i.e. well-being) precedes by many decades the reduction in global income inequality. Indeed, the collapse started around 1900, not 1970!

Figure2LEandro.png

In reading Leandro’s paper, I remembered the work of Goklany which had sowed the seeds of this idea in my idea. Nearly a decade after reading Goklany’s work well after I fully accepted this fact as valid, I remain stunned by its implications. You should too.