Massachusetts to let cabs tax Uber: The seen, the unseen, and the minor nuisance

There’s a simple alternative to regulation: liability. We don’t need to tell companies how to be safe if we make them legally responsible for negligence.

It’s as though Mass’s government decided that back-to-school season calls for creating real-life rent seeking examples for my class. They’re going to start taxing ride-sharing customers $0.20 per ride with five cents of that going to the taxi industry.

“The law says the money will help taxi businesses to adopt ‘new technologies and advanced service, safety and operational capabilities’ and to support workforce development.”

New technologies like an app that gets more use out of otherwise idle cars? Or an app that makes it easy to hail a ride with little wait? Or an app that brings supply into harmony with demand when demand surges? Oh wait! We’ve already got that and it’s the thing that’s being taxed!

There are a few important economic lessons that Massachusetts’ electorate is evidently in need of. Let’s start with taxes.

Taxes don’t stick

“Riders and drivers will not see the fee because the law bars companies from charging them.” They won’t see the fee, but that doesn’t mean they won’t pay it. A business only exists by collecting money from customers and paying some portion of that to suppliers. The government cannot tax a business without taxing that business’s customers and suppliers.

Granted, part of the cost will be reflected in lower profits (although profits aren’t as big as people think) which means Uber’s shareholders will face part of the tax. But what does that mean? It means 1) a little less money in pensions, and 2) potential investment capital is moved from the people who gave us the best version of taxi travel to the people who gave us the worst version of it.

Money is fungible and I don’t know how to run a cab company

Safety, new technology, and workforce development all sound good, but taxi companies (at least those that deserve to stay in business) will already be doing these things. Safety is important because accidents are costly (especially if your fleet size is limited by regulation). New technology is being adopted by every other (competitive) industry without government support. Other companies invest in their employees.*

Supporting workforce development is part of a larger trend of people supporting specific fringe benefits without appreciating the tradeoff between monetary and non-monetary compensation. And all these ideas reflect a faulty logic: just because something is good, doesn’t mean we need to force people to do it.

Voters simply aren’t in the right position to know if some good thing is good enough relative to other options. If you go into the backrooms of any industry you aren’t already familiar with you will surely learn about techniques and tools you had no idea existed before. So why should we expect that cab companies need regulators to tell them what to do? Let them learn from their trade magazines.

But there’s good news. If we mandated that cab companies use this new revenue stream to pay for new tires, they wouldn’t simply waste the money by buying superfluous tires. They’d stop buying tires out of their own revenues and start buying them from Uber’s. Telling someone to pay from their left pocket simply leaves more money in their right pocket for everything else.**

Extra money in cab company coffers could allow them to invest in better service, happier employees, “and help so taxi owners could buy ‘flagship’ vehicles like a 1940s Checker or a Porsche.” But cab companies are already free to reinvest their profits if they think doing so would create value (i.e. greater future profits). The more likely outcome is that they will simply have more money than before.

Competition is not the problem, it’s protectionism

When we see problems in the world we need to look for their root causes if we want to actually make things better. More often we act like a doctor diagnosing cancer is the cause of the cancer. Don’t want cancer? Outlaw doctors!

Cab companies aren’t as successful as they previously expected and the apparent culprit is Uber. But they only exist because an inefficiency in the market created a profit opportunity. Cab companies are doing poorly because they don’t provide as much value per dollar. And that’s largely because of regulation that prevents competition. Much of it was put in place specifically to protect incumbents from competition.

A lot of these regulations sound nice enough, but they still created the market niche that Lyft and Uber filled. And they protected cab companies from competition right up until ride-sharing became feasible.

Regulation is not the answer

Let’s give cabbies the benefit of the doubt for a minute. Let’s assume that they aren’t really in it for the cash-grab and that they just want to help people get around safely and conveniently. Let’s even assume that NYC’s medallion system is about congestion rather than competition.

If that’s the case, then there are better ways to address the root causes of the problems cabbies tell us to worry about. We don’t need to address each of these problems individually if we can find a few key causes at the root of each of them.

never-half-ass-two-things-whole-ass-one-thing

Cabs have medallions but civilians don’t, so congestion will still be a problem in cities until congestion fees are implemented that balance the demand for road access with its limited supply. Safety is important, but mandating extra inspections for only some types of cars is a half-assed way of dealing with it.

There’s a simple alternative to regulation: liability. We don’t need to tell companies how to be safe if we make them legally responsible for negligence. This is an important lesson for how we think about regulation in all industries. The basic logic is also why economists vastly prefer pollution taxes to specific regulations; it’s usually better to name the outcome we want and create a cost for failure to meet it rather than mandate specific behaviors.

Perhaps this means we should modify the laws that require all drivers to be insured so that some drivers have higher minimum liability coverage. That would be far less invasive and do far more to alleviate the concerns Uber’s critics raise than mandating specific behaviors.

Concentrated benefits dispersed costs

Okay, so maybe this is too small an issue to be concerned with. If that’s not by intentional design, then it at least reflects an evolutionary logic. This policy is likely to survive because the people it taxes will face a cost so small it isn’t worth doing anything about. Yes, Uber and Lyft have incentive to lobby against it, but it’s so close to invisible that they’ll probably be able to pass it almost entirely on to drivers and passengers.

This is going to cost millions… with a tiny little m. At first I read it as a 5% tax and quickly realized that Uber rides are so cheap that I won’t even notice it. And 20 cents a ride is even less than 5%.

So why worry? Precedent. The problem with death by a thousand cuts isn’t any one cut.


*Of course we can argue about whether they do enough of that. There may be a tragedy of the commons if there’s asymmetric information between people looking to make human capital investments and businesses looking to gain access to specific human capital. Such a situation might create an opportunity for government to do some good by investing in public goods or subsidizing on-the-job training. But if that’s the case, it calls for very different programs (education reform, etc.) than taxing successful companies to subsidize their competition.

**Why is this good news? Because if cab companies did change their behavior it would imply they’re doing something where cost exceeds benefit. It would destroy value. Remember those stories of WWII rationing? Imagine that situation but with cab companies buying twice as many tires and just storing extras in the garage. It would clearly be a bad thing. Scarcity isn’t so urgent nowadays, but the basic logic remains the same.

Muddy thinking on child care

Five Thirty Eight had a disappointing discussion of an interesting issue: the cost of child care for working parents. The basic issue is that kids are expensive in time and money. Unfortunately, the discussion mostly revolved around questions of how to engage in economic engineering by government in order to expand access to child care and parental leave.

The hosts see these policies as having costs and benefits, and they see the value in studying alternatives empirically, but they miss an important issue: providing these sorts of goods doesn’t require screwing up markets by adding an extra layer of complexity to the tax code. If these goods are worth providing (that’s another couple of cans of worms) then just give money to new parents. Better yet, move to a basic income guarantee.

Another important point they miss is that if some good is difficult to get, it’s worth figuring out what to do about the root problem rather than just throwing money at the issue and hoping someone will figure out the important stuff later.

Would a Universal Basic Income Increase Poverty?

Switzerland has recently overwhelming voted against a proposal that would establish a universal income guarantee (sometimes called a “basic income guarantee” or the similar Friedman-influenced “negative income tax”[1]). Though I myself am a supporter of BIG as a nth best policy alternative for pragmatic reasons,[2] I’m unsure if I myself would have voted for this specific policy proposal due to the lack of specifics. A basic income is only as good as the welfare regime surrounding it (which preferably would be very limited) and the tax system that funds it.[3] However, the surprising degree of unpopularity of the proposal—with 76.9% voting against—was quite surprising.

The Swiss vote has renewed debate in the more wonkish press and blogosphere, as well as in think tanks, about the merits and defects of a Basic Income Guarantee here in the States. For example, Robert Goldstein of the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities[4] has a piece arguing that a BIG would increase poverty if implemented as a replacement for the current welfare state. His argument covers three points:

  1. A BIG would be extremely costly to the point of being impossible to fund.
  2. A BIG would increase the poverty rate by replacing current welfare programs like Medicaid and SNAP.
  3. A universal welfare program like a BIG—as opposed to means-tested programs—is politically impossible right now due to its unpopularity.

For this post, I’ll analyze Goldstein’s arguments in detail. Overall, I do not find his arguments against a BIG convincing at all.

The Political Impossibility of a BIG

Goldstein writes:

Some UBI supporters stress that it would be universal.  One often hears that means-tested programs eventually get crushed politically while universal programs do well.  But the evidence doesn’t support that belief.  While cash aid for poor people who aren’t working has fared poorly politically, means-tested programs as a whole have done well.  Recent decades have witnessed large expansions of SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, and other programs.

If anything, means-tested programs have fared somewhat better than universal programs in the last several decades.  Since 1980, policymakers in Washington and in a number of states have cut unemployment insurance, contributing to a substantial decline in the share of jobless Americans — now below 30 percent — who receive unemployment benefits.  In addition, the 1983 Social Security deal raised the program’s retirement age from 65 to 67, ultimately generating a 14 percent benefit cut for all beneficiaries, regardless of the age at which someone begins drawing benefits.  Meanwhile, means-tested benefits overall have substantially expanded despite periodic attacks from the right.  The most recent expansion occurred in December when policymakers made permanent significant expansions of the EITC and the low-income part of the Child Tax Credit that were due to expire after 2017.

In recent decades, conservatives generally have been more willing to accept expansions of means-tested programs than universal ones, largely due to the substantially lower costs they carry (which means they exert less pressure on total government spending and taxes).

I agree that Goldstein is right on this point: universal welfare programs are extremely unpopular right now, like the Swiss vote shows. I imagine that if a proposal were on the ballot in the States the outcome would be similar.[5] However, this is no argument against a Basic Income. Advocating politically unpopular though morally and economically superior policies is precisely the role academics and think tank wonks like Goldstein should take.

If something is outside the Overton Window of Political Possibilities, it won’t necessarily be so in the future if policymakers can make the case for it effectively to voters and the “second-hand dealer of ideas” in think tanks and academia get their ideas “in the air,” so to speak.[6] It wasn’t that long ago that immigration reform or healthcare reform seemed politically impossible due to its unpopularity, yet the ladder has popular support and the former was actually accomplished.[7]

If anything, the unpopularity of a BIG is precisely why people like Goldstein should advocate for the policy.

The Fiscal Costs of Funding a Basic Income Guarantee

Goldstein points out, rightly, that a Basic Income Guarantee would be extremely expensive:

There are over 300 million Americans today.  Suppose UBI provided everyone with $10,000 a year.  That would cost more than $3 trillion a year — and $30 trillion to $40 trillion over ten years.

This single-year figure equals more than three-fourths of the entire yearly federal budget — and double the entire budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.  It’s also equal to close to 100 percent of all tax revenue the federal government collects.

Or, consider UBI that gives everyone $5,000 a year.  That would provide income equal to about two-fifths of the poverty line for an individual (which is a projected $12,700 in 2016) and less than the poverty line for a family of four ($24,800).  But it would cost as much as the entire federal budget outside Social Security, Medicare, defense, and interest payments.

Where would the money to finance such a large expenditure come from?  That it would come mainly or entirely from new taxes isn’t plausible.  We’ll already need substantial new revenues in the coming decades to help keep Social Security and Medicare solvent and avoid large benefit cuts in them.  We’ll need further tax increases to help repair a crumbling infrastructure that will otherwise impede economic growth.  And if we want to create more opportunity and reduce racial and other barriers and inequities, we’ll also need to raise new revenues to invest more in areas like pre-school education, child care, college affordability, and revitalizing segregated inner-city communities.

Of course, Goldstein is right that a BIG would be fairly expensive and we are already having serious issues funding our existing welfare state. However, he grossly oversells the difficulty in funding it. In particular, it is not necessary to raise taxes to pay for it or for current welfare expenditures.

Goldstein likely gets the $10,000 figure from Charles Murray’s proposal for a BIG. Personally, I’m no fan of Murray’s proposal as it goes too far and he proposes financing it by increasing payroll taxes, which are economically inefficient. However, let’s assume that the relevant proposal is around $7,000 dollars.[8] Multiplying that by the US population of 320 million makes for a total cost $2.24 trillion per year.[9] This could be paid for by using the BIG to replace the following current welfare programs and cutting discretionary spending:[10]

  1. $65.32 billion annually in discretionary spending on Veteran’s benefits
  2. $66.03 billion in discretionary spending on Medicare and other healthcare benefits
  3. $69.98 billion in discretionary spending for education.[11]
  4. $13.13 billion in discretionary spending for food and agriculture (eg., SNAP).[12]
  5. $1.25 trillion in mandatory spending for Social Security.[13]
  6. $985.74 billion in mandatory spending for Medicare and Healthcare.
  7. $95.3 billion in mandatory spending for veteran’s benefits.[14]

Spending a UBI Could Replace

That’s a total of $2.542 trillion in savings annually, more than enough to fund the proposed BIG with another $300.3 billion to spare that could be used for tax credits for low-income households to use on healthcare,[15] education,[16] retirement,[17] and/or basic necessities like food.[18] Funding the program would be a huge challenge, but it is possible to do it without tax increases.

Additionally, Goldstein ignores the fact that similar proposals, such as Friedman’s negative income tax, would have a much lower cost while having a similar effect. The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond has estimated that a NIT could cost only $182 billion annually.[19] From Hammond’s analysis:

Just how much of a cost difference is there between a UBI and NIT? To get a rough idea, I used the Census population survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement, which has the distribution of individuals over the age of 15 by income level in $2,500 intervals (I subtracted retirees). I then calculated the transfer each quantile would receive based on a hypothetical NIT which starts at $5,000 for individuals with zero income and is phased out at a rate of 30%. Multiplying the average transfer by the number of actual individuals in each grouping and summing, I arrived at total cost of $182 billion—roughly the combined budget for SSI, SNAP and EITC.

The Effect of Replacing Welfare with a BIG on Poverty

Goldstein would object to my line of reasoning by saying cutting all that spending would harm the poor and increase the poverty rate. He says as much in his piece:

UBI’s daunting financing challenges raise fundamental questions about its political feasibility, both now and in coming decades.  Proponents often speak of an emerging left-right coalition to support it.  But consider what UBI’s supporters on the right advocate.  They generally propose UBI as a replacement for the current “welfare state.”  That is, they would finance UBI by eliminating all or most programs for people with low or modest incomes.

….Yet that’s the platform on which the (limited) support for UBI on the right largely rests.  It entails abolishing programs from SNAP (food stamps), which largely eliminated the severe child malnutrition found in parts of the Southern “black belt” and Appalachia in the late 1960s, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Section 8 rental vouchers, Medicaid, Head Start, child care assistance, and many others.  These programs lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor.

Some UBI proponents may argue that by ending current programs, we’d reap large administrative savings that we could convert into UBI payments.  But that’s mistaken.  For the major means-tested programs — SNAP, Medicaid, the EITC, housing vouchers, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and school meals — administrative costs consume only 1 to 9 percent of program resources, as a CBPP analysis explains.  Their funding goes overwhelmingly to boost the incomes and purchasing power of low-income families.[20]

Moreover, as the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal has noted, eliminating Medicaid, SNAP, the EITC, housing vouchers, and the like would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI.  Would we also end Pell Grants that help low-income students afford college?  Would we terminate support for children in foster care, for mental health, and for job training services?

This is by far and away the weakest part of Goldstein’s argument.

First of all, as my analysis above showed, Konczal’s and Goldstein’s idea that eliminating the current welfare state “would still leave you far short of what’s needed to finance a meaningful UBI” is just false. Even a relatively robust UBI of $7,000 a year is doable by significantly cutting current welfare programs.

But more importantly, Goldstein’s assertion that replacing the welfare state with a UBI would increase poverty is fully unwarranted. He seems to take a ridiculously unsophisticated idea that “more means-tested programs immediately reduce welfare.” His assertion that the programs in question “lift tens of millions of people, including millions of children, out of poverty each year and make tens of millions more less poor” is, at best, completely erroneous. For three reasons: first, individuals know better what they need to lift themselves out of the than the government, and these programs assume the opposite. Second, the structure of status quo means-tested programs often creates a “poverty trap” which incentivizes households to remain below the poverty line. Finally, thanks to these first two theoretical reasons, the empirical evidence on the success of the status-quo programs in terms of reducing the poverty rate is, at best, mixed.

The way our current welfare state is structured is it allocates how much money can go to what basic necessities for welfare recipients. So if a household gets $10,000 in welfare a year, the government mandates that, say, $3,000 goes to food, $3,000 goes to healthcare, $3,000 goes to education, and $1,000 goes to retirement.[21] This essentially assumes that all individuals and households have the same needs; but this is simply not the case, elderly people may need more money for healthcare and less for education, younger people may need the exact opposite, and poorer families with children may need more for food and education than other needs. It’s almost as if our current welfare system assumes interpersonal utility function comparisons are possible, or utility functions of poorer people are fairly homogenous but they’re not. It also ignores the opportunity cost of the funding for helping individuals and households out of funding; a dollar spent on healthcare may be more effectively spent on food for a particular individual or household.

In sum, there’s a knowledge problem involved in our current welfare policy to combat poverty: the government cannot know the needs of impoverished individuals, and such knowledge is largely dispersed, tacit, and possessed by the individuals themselves. The chief merit of a UBI is, rather than telling poor people what they can spend their welfare on, it just gives them the money and lets them spend it as they need.

Second, universal programs are superior to means tested programs precisely because the amount of transfer payments received does not decrease as income increases. Our current welfare programs too often make the marginal cost of earning an additional dollar, above a certain threshold, higher than the benefits because transfer payments are cut-off at that threshold. This actually perversely incentivizes households to remain in poverty.[22] For example, the Illinois Policy Institute while analyzing welfare in Illinois found the following:

A single mom has the most resources available to her family when she works full time at a wage of $8.25 to $12 an hour. Disturbingly, taking a pay increase to $18 an hour can leave her with about one-third fewer total resources (net income and government benefits). In order to make work “pay” again, she would need an hourly wage of $38 to mitigate the impact of lost benefits and higher taxes.

SingleMomWelfareCliffChart

Or consider this chart (shown above) from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare showing the same effect in Pennsylvania

UBI does not suffer from this effect. If your income goes up, you do not lose benefits and so there are no perverse incentives at work here. Ed Dolan has analyzed how the current welfare state with its means-tested benefits is worse in terms of incentivizing work and alleviating poverty extensively. Here’s a slice of his analysis:

P140810-11

The horizontal axis in Figure 1 represents earned income while the vertical axis shows disposable income, that is, earned income plus benefits. To keep things simple, we will assume no income or payroll taxes on earned income—an assumption that I will briefly return to near the end of the post. The dashed 45o line shows that earned and disposable income are the same when there are no taxes or income support. The solid red line shows the relationship between disposable and earned income with the MTIS policy.

This generic MTIS policy has three features:

A minimum guaranteed income, G, that households receive if they have no earned income at all.

A benefit reduction rate (or effective marginal tax rate), t, indicted by the angle between the 45o line and the red MTIS schedule. The fact that t is greater than zero is what we mean when we say that the program is means tested. As the figure is drawn, t = .75, that is, benefits are reduced by 75 cents for each dollar earned.

A break-even income level, beyond which benefits stop. Past that point, earned income equals disposable income.

When these two factors are taken into account (that individuals know better than the government what they need to get out of poverty and there are significant poverty traps in our welfare state), it is no surprised that the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of these anti-poverty programs is far less rosy than Goldstein seem to think.

After reviewing the empirical literature on the relationship between income and welfare improvements for impoverished households, Columbia University’s Jane Waldfogel concluded “we cannot be certain whether and how much child outcomes could be improved by transferring income to low income families.” The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner wrote in 2006:

Yet, last year, the federal government spent more than $477 billion on some 50 different programs to fight poverty. That amounts to $12,892 for every poor man, woman, and child in this country. And it does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments. For all the talk about Republican budget cuts, spending on these social programs has increased an inflation-adjusted 22 percent since President Bush took office.

Despite this government largesse, 37 million Americans continue to live in poverty. In fact, despite nearly $9 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where it was when we began, more than 40 years ago.

Tanner’s point remains true today. The chart below shows that, despite a massive increase in anti-poverty spending since the war on poverty was declared under Johnson’s “Great Society,” Poverty rates have remained woefully stagnant. In fact, the reduction in poverty that was occurring prior to Johnson’s interventions stopped soon thereafter.

US Poverty Spending

Also, the point is that UBI is a replacement for current welfare benefits. Most households probably would not see a decrease in amount of benefits under a UBI, depending on the specifics of the proposal, and some might even see an increase, contrary to Goldstein’s analysis. Further, they’d be able to actually spend this on what they know they need rather than what government bureaucrats thin they need.

UBI lacks the flaws of the current welfare state, and would likely decrease poverty far more effectively than Goldstein thinks, especially when compared to his favored status-quo.

[1] Though there are some technical differences between Milton Friedman’s proposal for a “negative income tax” and most Basic Income Guarantee proposals, they essentially have the same effect on income. See the Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowmen on this point.

[2] See Matt Zwolinski for the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for a Basic Income,” it should be noted that “pragmatic reasons” here does not refer to my pragmatist philosophical views. Zwolinski has also made a moral case for the basic income on Hayekian grounds that a BIG could reduce coercion in labor negations. I am unsure to what extent I am convinced by this line of reasoning, but it is a valid argument nonetheless.

[3] The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond has made the case that universal transfer programs like a Basic Income cannot be analyzed outside of the tax system that pays for it.”

[4] Or, as my think tank buddies jokingly call it, the “Center for Bigger Budgets.”

[5] Having said that, polls have shown that it is popular across the pond in the Eurozone. The Swiss proposal would call into question this point but it could be argued that the vagueness of the Swiss proposal is why it was turned down not necessarily the spirit of it.

[6] My colleague Ty Hicks of Students for Liberty has made this point well. See also Hayek’s “Intellectuals and Socialism.”

[7] Granted, the Affordable Care Act was not really what most on the left or the right wanted in the first place and has been a disaster.

[8] This number is selected because, according to the CBO, $9,000 is the average amount in means-tested welfare benefits per household for 2006. But that’s for households and a BIG discussed here is for individuals, so it is understandable to make a BIG slightly less than the current average. Goldstein would object that this is far below the poverty line, but BIG is not meant to be a replacement for total income on the labor market at all, so it is unclear why this is an objection in the first place.

[9] This is admittedly a crude and naïve calculation but it is virtually identical to the method Goldstein himself uses to estimate the cost.

[10] All figures for this section are for the 2015 budget and are taken from here.

[11] Goldstein is sure not to be happy with cutting education, and I myself would like to replace this spending with few-strings-attached funding for local education or private school tax vouchers. I’ll address this point more later in this piece.

[12] Much of this is food stamps, which would be rendered obsolete by a BIG anyways. Goldstein would object, more on that in the next section.

[13] Not all of this could be cut, and there would be legal and detailed nuances on how to treat financial obligations for Social Security, veteran’s benefits, and Medicare. The specific legal complexities of mandatory welfare spending are not my areas of expertise, admittedly, and is outside the scope of this paper. I’m just illustrating that it is possible to cut at least some of this spending, perhaps even the majority of it, to fund it.

[14] Many people would object to cutting veterans benefits. First of all, BIG could act in place of these benefits

[15] I have in mind expanding tax-exempt Health Savings Accounts here. I also think funding this by eliminating the employer-based deduction would be a step in the right direction and reduce cost fragmentation in the healthcare market, as Milton Freidman argued.

[16] I have in mind a private school taxpayer voucher system like what is in Sweden.

[17] I have in mind something similar to this proposal to reform social security from the Cato Institute.

[18] I have in mind something like the pre-bates proposed in the Fair Tax.

[19] For this reason, I prefer an NIT to a BIG, but I prefer both to our current welfare state.

[20] This point is Ironic considering the fact that CBPP’s own research shows that government benefits in America overwhelmingly goes to households above the poverty line, in the middle and upper classes. See this chart (source):

1-SOlzSwsxa08Cno7PiQ9R7A

[21] The real-world numbers are probably different and vary a little bit from household to household, but this is just a hypothetical to illustrate a more general point.

[22] It should be noted, however, that the EITC, and some other programs, is largely free of this defect. This is because the EITC itself is modeled after Friedman’s NIT.

Note: The first chart has been edited since this was initially posted for readability.

A Modest Proposal for Fiscal Reform

Herewith, a modest proposal: abolish all federal taxes and substitute fees for state membership in the Union. $7 billion annually for each representative in Congress plus $7 billion for each Senator would cover current Federal spending. Each state would have to come up with this sum annually, raised in any way they see fit.

Comments:

  • Smaller states would pay more per capita since they have more Senators per capita. That seems only fair.
  • Where would states get the money? Same places the Feds get it: taxation and borrowing. The states would have to pay close attention to their credit ratings to keep borrowing costs low. That would of course require that they exercise fiscal prudence.
  • States would have to compete among themselves to find revenue sources that minimize the damage done to the private economy.
  • Citizens would have greater influence over their state politicians than they have over the Feds.
  • Crony capitalists, rent-seekers and their ilk would be slowed down by the need to devote more attention to 50 state governments and less to the central government.
  • What about deadbeat states? They would lose their votes in Congress until they paid up.  Conversely, wealthy states might be allowed to purchase extra seats in Congress.
  • Might this scheme encourage secession? Yes! Got a problem with that?
  • Wouldn’t this be a heavy burden on state taxpayers? Decidedly. With about 235,000 households per Congressman, that works out to $30,000 per household per year. But who’s bearing that burden now? Santa Claus?

The Federal debt is a thornier issue. Should it be paid off by the states? A drastic remedy would be to hand over securities to the states for payment as they come due. About $7.5 trillion per year would be required (counting gross debt rather than debt in the hands of the public). This would roughly triple the state taxpayer burden—admittedly a non-starter. Repudiation would be another remedy. Mandatory rollover would be another. No good solutions here.

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!