A Common Conservative Fallacy

I believe folly serves liberals better than it serves conservatives. Our way is the rational way while liberals tend to rely on their gut-feelings and on their sensitive hearts which make them comparatively indifferent to hard facts. That’s why they voted for  Pres. Obama. That’s why they voted for Mrs Bill Clinton against all strong evidence (known evidence, verifiable, not just suppositions) of her moral and intellectual unsuitability. That’s why many of them still can’t face emotionally the possibility of buyer’s remorse with respect to Mr Obama. That’s why they can’t collectively face the results of the 2016 election. So, conservatives have a special duty to wash out their brains of fallacy often.

It’s the task of every conservative to correct important errors that have found their way into fellow conservatives’ mind. Here is one I hear several times a week, especially from Rush Limbaugh (whom I otherwise like and admire). What’s below is a paraphrase, a distillation of many different but similar statements, from Limbaugh and from others I listen to and read, and from Internet comments, including many on my own Facebook:

“Government does not create jobs,”

and

“Government does not create wealth (it just seizes the wealth created by business and transfers it to others).”

Both statements are important and both statements are just false. It’s not difficult to show why.

First, some government actions make jobs possible that would not exist, absent those actions. Bear with me.

Suppose I have a large field of good bottom land. From this land I can easily grow a crop of corn sufficient to feed my family, and our poultry, and our pig, Gaspard. I grow a little more to make pretty good whiskey. I have no reason to grow more corn than this. I forgot to tell you: This is 1820 in eastern Ohio. Now, the government uses taxes (money taken from me and from others under threat of violence, to be sure) to dig and build  a canal that links me and others to the growing urban centers of New York and Pennsylvania. I decide to plant more corn, for sale back East. This growth in my total production works so well that I expand again. Soon, I have to hire a field hand to help me out. After a while, I have two employees.

In the  historically realistic situation I describe, would it not be absurd to declare that the government gets no credit, zero credit for the two new jobs? Sure, absent government tax-supported initiative, canals may have been built as private endeavors and with private funds. In the meantime, denying that the government contributed to the creation of two new jobs in the story above is not true to fact.

Second, it should be obvious that government provides many services, beginning with mail delivery. Also, some of the services private companies supply in this country are provided elsewhere by a branch of government. They are comparable. This fact allows for an estimation of the economic value of the relevant government services. Emergency services, ambulance service, is a case in point. Most ambulances are privately owned and operated in the US while most ambulances are government-owned and operated in France. If you have a serious car accident in the US, you or someone calls a certain number and an ambulance arrives to administer first aid and to carry you to a hospital if needed. Exactly the same thing happens in France under similar circumstances. (The only difference is that, in France, the EM guy immediately hands you a shot of good cognac. OK, it’s not true; I am kidding.)

In both countries, the value of the service so rendered is entered into the national accounting and it does in fact appear in the American Gross Domestic Product for the year (GDP) and in the French GDP, respectively. The GDP of each country thus increases by something like $500 each time an ambulance is used. Incidentally, the much decried GDP is important because it’s the most common measure of the value of our collective production. One version of GDP (“PPP”) is roughly comparable between countries. When the GDP is up by 3,5 % for a year, it makes every American who knows it, happy; also some who don’t know it. When the GDP shrinks by 1%, we all worry and we all feel poorer. If the GDP change shrinks below zero for two consecutive quarters, you have the conventional definition of a recession and all hell breaks lose, including usually a rise in unemployment.

Exactly the same is true in France. The government-provided French ambulance service has exactly the same effect on the French GDP.

Now think of this: Is there anyone who believes that the equivalent service supplied in France by a government agency does not have more or less the same value as the American service provided by a private company? Would anyone argue that the ambulance service supplied in France, in most ways identical to the service in America, should not be counted in the French GDP? Clearly, both propositions are absurd.

Same thing for job creation. When the French government agency in charge of ambulances hires an additional ambulance driver, it creates a new job, same as when an American company hires an ambulance driver.

By the way, don’t think my story trivial. “Services” is a poorly defined category. It’s even sometimes too heterogeneous to be useful (not “erogenous,” please pay attention). It includes such disparate things as waitressing, fortune-telling, university teaching, and doing whatever Social Security employees do. Yet it’s good enough for gross purposes. Depending on what you include, last year “services” accounted for something between 45% and 70% of US GDP. So, if you think services, such as ambulance service, should not be counted, you should know that it means that we are earning collectively about half to three quarters less than we think we do. If memory serves, that means that our standard of living today is about the same as it was in 1950 or even in 1930.

Does this all imply that we should rejoice every time the government expands? The answer is “No,” for three reasons. These three reasons however should only show up after we have resolved the issue described above, after we have convinced ourselves that government does provide service and that it and does create real jobs, directly and indirectly. Below are the three questions that correspond to the three reasons why conservatives should still not rejoice when government enlarges its scope. Conservatives should ask these three questions over and over again:

1 Is this service a real service to regular people or is it created only, or largely, to serve the needs of those who provide it, or for frivolous reasons? Some government services fall into this area, not many, I think. Look in the direction of government control, inspection, verification functions. Don’t forget your local government.

Often, the answer to this question is not clear or it is changing. Public primary and secondary education looks more and more like a service provided largely or even primarily to give careers to teachers and administrators protected by powerful unions. It does not mean that the real, or the expected service, “education,” is not delivered, just that it’s often done badly by people who are not the best they could be to provide that particular service; also people who are difficult or impossible to replace.

2   Is this particular service better provided by government or by the private sector? Is it better provided by government although the provision of the service requires collecting taxes and then paying out the proceeds to the actual civil servants through a government bureaucracy? That’s a very indirect way to go about anything, it would seem. That’s enough reason to be skeptical. The indirectness of the route between collecting the necessary funds and their being paid out to providers should often be enough to make government service more expensive than private, market-driven equivalent services. Note that the statement is credible even if every government employee involved is a model of efficiency.

The US Post Office remains the best example of a  situation where one would say  the private sector can do it better.

Only conservatives dare pose this question with respect to services one level of government or other has been supplying for a long time or forever. The Post Office is inefficient; if it were abolished, the paper mail would be delivered, faster or cheaper, or both. Some paper mail would not be delivered anymore. Many more of us would count it a blessing than the reverse. While there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum that children should be educated at collective expense, there is growing certitude that governments should not be in the business of education. In many parts of the country, the public schools are both expensive and bad. Last time I looked, Washington DC was spending over $20,000 per pupil per year. Give me half that amount and half the students or better will come out knowing how to read, I say. (It’s not the case now.)

3   This is the most serious question and the most difficult to answer concretely: Does the fact that this service is provided by government (any level) have any negative effect on our liberties? This is a separate question altogether. It may be that the government’s supply of a particular service is both inefficient and dangerous to freedom. It may be however that government supply is the most efficient solution possible and yet, I don’t want it because it threatens my freedom. As a conservative, I believe that my money is my money. I am free to use it to buy inefficiently, in order to preserve liberty, for example. I am not intellectually obligated to be “pragmatic” and short sighted.

To take an example at random, if someone showed me, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt, that Obamacare would reduce the cost of health care without impairing its quality, if that happened, I would still be against it because of the answer I would give to the third and last question above.

I don’t want a any government bureaucracy to make decisions that are ultimately decisions of life and death on my behalf. The possibility of blackmail is too real. Even thinking about it is likely to make some citizens more docile than they otherwise would be. So much power about such real issues must have a chilling effect on the many.

The rule of thumb is this: Every expansion of government reduces individual freedom. That’s true even if this expansion creates and efficient and effective government agency, say, a real good Post Office we don’t even know how to dream of. And this is not an abstract view. The well-intentioned and in other ways laudable recognition of homosexual marriage was followed in short order by threats and fines against a hapless baker who declined to bake a cake for a gay wedding. We must keep in mind at all times that, of course, the power to fine, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy.

An efficient but ethically objectionable government service is not something I worry much about, in the case of Obamacare specifically, by the way. It is inefficient, ineffective and dangerous to individual liberty all at once.

Conservatives don’t do enough to proclaim that their opposition to big government has an ethical basis, that it’s a moral position independent of the quality of big government. This silence makes if easy for liberals to caricature conservatives as just selfish grouches who don’t want to pay taxes.

Most of the time, I don’t want to pay taxes because I don’t want to be forced. I would gladly give away twice the amount of my taxes if there were a way to do it voluntarily instead of paying taxes.

I am so opposed to this kind of force that I think even the undeserving and obscenely rich should not be despoiled by the government. It’s an ethical position, not a pragmatic one. And, it sure cannot be called “selfish.” (WTF!)

Can we use tax data to measure living standards (part 2)?

Yesterday, my post on the differences in per capita income and total income per tax unit caused some friends to be puzzled by my results. To their credit, the point can be defended that tax units are not the same as households and the number of tax units may have increased faster than population (example: a father in 1920 filled one tax unit even though his household had six members, but with more single households in the 1960s onwards the number of tax units could rise faster than population for a time).

The problems regarding the use of tax units instead of households is not new. In fact, it is one of the sticking point advanced by skeptics like Alan Reynolds (see his 2006 book) and, more recently, by Richard Burkhauser of Cornell University (see his National Tax Journal article here).

Could it be that all the differences between GDP per person and income per tax unit are caused by this problem? Not really.

There is an easy to see if the problem is real. Both measures are ratios (income over a population). Either the numerator is wrong or the denominator is wrong. Those who view tax units as the problem argue that the problem is the denominator. I do not agree since I believe that the numerator is at fault. The way to see this is simply to plot total income reported by all tax units and compare this with real GDP. What’s the result?

Even with tax-reported income being deflated with the Implicit Price Deflator (IPD) instead of the consumer price index, we end up with a difference (in 2013) of roughly 3 orders of magnitude between GDP and tax-reported income relative to the 1929 base point. Basically, GDP has increased by a factor of 14.749 since 1929 while IPD-deflated tax-reported income has only increased by a factor of 11.546.

TaxData

As a result, I do not believe that the problem is the tax unit issue. The problem seems to be that tax data is not capturing the same thing as GDP is!

Can we use tax units to measure living standards?

In the debate on inequality, I am a skeptic of how large a problem the issue is. Personally, I tend to believe that worries of inequality only increase when growth is stagnant. In fact, I also believe that there are numerous statistical biases causing us to misidentify stagnation as rising inequality. Most of the debate on inequality is plagued with statistical problems of daunting magnitudes (regional convergence in income, regional price levels, demographic changes, increasing heterogeneity of preferences, increasing heterogeneity of personal characteristics, income not being purely monetary, the role of taxes and transfers etc.)

One of them centers around the use of tax data. This has been the domain of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. I can understand the appeal of using tax data since it is easily available and usable. Yet, is it perfect?

A year or two ago, I would have been inclined to simply say “yes” and not bother with the details. Theoretically, taxes should be an “okay” proxy for the income distribution and should follow average income even if at different levels. Yet, after reading the article of Phil Magness and Robert Murphy in the Journal of Private Enterprise I confess that I am no longer accepting anything as “granted” in the inequality debate. So, I simply decided to chart GDP per capita with the average taxable income per tax unit. Just to see what happens. Both are basically averages of the overall population, they should look pretty much the same (theoretically).  The data for the tax units is made available in the Mark W. Frank dataset based on the Piketty-Saez data (see here) and I deflated with both the CPI and the implicit price deflator available at FRED/St-Louis.

The result is the following and it shows two very different stories! Either the GDP statistics are wrong and we have average stagnation (which does not mean that there is no increase in inequality) or the taxable income data is wrong in estimating the trend of living standards and the GDP are closer to reality (which does not that there is no increase in inequality).  In the end, there is a problem to be assessed with the quality of the data used to measure inequality.

Tax Data

The Chinese Get Richer, I Become Poorer. Right? Dreaded Percentages!

Elections season is on us again. On the talk shows, I hear more and more callers, and often hosts, grossly misusing percentages in the service of fallacious claims. Politicians won’t be far behind. Here we go again, I am thinking; I have been here before. Got to explain again.

This time, I am taking names. And there will be a quiz, and it will count toward the final grade.

Pay attention; slow down.

It’s 2000, I, JD, earn $60 as a machinist. My wife K earns $40 keeping accounts for others with the help of some sophisticate software. I am earning what percentage of our joint income?

60/60+40 = 60%

It’s 2010, I, JD, now earn $90 as a machinist, My wife K’s business has taken flight. She uses more sophisticated software. She has more customers than she can handle. She earns $120.

My share of our new joint income is now:

90/90+120 = 42%

The percentage of our joint income that I produce has declined. It has declined a lot; it has declined by almost 1/3.

Has the value of my production declined? Slow down!

The answer is clearly “no.” The value of my production has increased by half (from 60 to 90). That’s not bad at all. At any rate, it ‘s obviously an increase.

Think it through. Do the arithmetic yourself. There is no trick. It’s the simple math you did not learn in third grade because you hated the teacher.

In the simple example above, my income represents the value of American manufacturing. My wife’s income represents the value of the mysterious and illogical category “services.”

The percentage of the value of manufacturing relative to the total GDP of this country has been going down steadily because the value of US services has gone up even faster.

The absolute value of American manufacturing has only gone up and up, and going up. America has not become “de-industrialized,” contrary to a common but false perception.

The misperception has two main sources:

  1. Many media commentators and perhaps even more politicians don’t understand simple percentages. See above.
  2. The number of manufacturing jobs has declined even as the value of that which they manufacture has gone up.

Here is a solution to the drying up of manufacturing jobs: Take away machine tools from one metal worker in three; give him a hammer instead. You want even more manufacturing jobs, lots of them? Remove the software from textile weaving plants. Program their machines by hand as they did in 1910.

You don’t like the idea? Time for a serious discussion.

Now let’s go back up a little.

The quite good rise in the value of manufactures and the even greater rise in the value of whatever services produce, these two things are related. Better and better, more and more efficient manufacturing provides the resources for more services. We can afford more waiters, more surgeons, more teachers, more acupuncturists, more therapists, more life coaches, more “color advisers” (I live in Santa Cruz, California) because, collectively, we produce more hard necessities much more cheaply than our close ancestors did. Hard necessities include cars, soap, oatmeal, shovels, bricks and nails. Why, nails used to be forged by hand! I own some hand-forged nails from making repairs on my 1906 house.

When you hear, for example, that manufacturing now contributes only 30% of US GDP, it does not mean that there is less manufacturing being done in this country. To figure out the reality, you have to get out of percentages completely. Period!

If my income used to be $60 and it’s now $50 then, yes, it has declined. If it’s now $65, my income has risen. Period! That’s true irrespective of percentage contribution to anything.

Tech note: Don’t get tripped by the separate issue of the changing value of money. There are inflation/deflation calculators on the Internet that do a good enough job of dealing with this issue. I recommend that you consider one train of thought at a time.

Nearly everyone is overestimating himself. That’s the problem.

Speaking of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a National Public Radio chickie announced breathlessly a couple of weeks ago that China would soon pass the US in GDP. I could hear fearful emotion in her voice, as if some bastard had threatened to cut up her credit card.

Here is the truth: We may soon see the day when 1,400 million Chinese produce as much together as…..314 million Americans.

Personally, I can’t wait for the Chinese to do better, to make their percentage of global joint production much higher.

Question: When the Chinese GDP reaches 60% of world joint GDP, will I be poorer?

National Economic Systems: an Introduction for Intelligent Beginners

Part One: Stimulation.

This essay does not require any specialized or advanced knowledge of economics. It does require an open mind and moderate alertness.

It’s must be difficult for the average working stiff with a job or school attendance, or both, a mortgage, and a family, to make sense of the daily economic news. It’s not because you are ill-informed, it’s because the media gives economic news in bits and pieces without tying them together, and usually without context. I suspect few of the big media commentators understand the context or try to link the fragments, anyway. Those who do understand tend to assume that everyone is aboard the same train they are riding. They don’t have much to say to those who are still at the station.

Major exceptions are the Financial Times, which has a strong pro-Obama bias, and the Wall Street Journal, which does not. Even with those, you have to read them every other day to get the big picture. So here, is the straight dope. (If you are concerned about my qualifications, a valid point, you will find a link to a fairly up-to-date version of my vita on the front of this blog.)

We are not facing one economic crisis but two. One is more or less routine, the other is almost unprecedented. The mildly re-assuring noises the media are currently making are about the first crisis, the almost-routine crisis only.

The first crisis is a conventional recession. Recessions are historically a normal part of capitalism. Healthy capitalist economies are on a growth path most of the time. There are several measures of economic growth and contraction. The easiest to understand is Gross Domestic Product, “GDP.” There are criticisms of this measure but we don’t care right now, for our narrow purpose.

GDPs grow at varying rate at different times and in different countries. A US GDP growth of 3.5 % per year makes nearly everyone happy. Countries that are at an early stage of development, such as India, and have a long way to go, often experience annual growth of 6% or 7%. China’s GDP growth has often topped 10% .Western European countries have been pleased with annual rates of growth of 2% for many years. There is a lesson here; don’t lose track of it.

National economies don’t always expand, sometimes, they contract. That’s a lot like the income of someone on an hourly wage instead of a straight salary. The prodigious economic growth of western countries under capitalism in the past 150 years is made up of series of expansions followed by contractions. We had overall growth because the contractions were both less in magnitude and shorter in duration than the periods of expansion.

The word “recession” means either two consecutive quarters of contraction of the national economy or it means any damn thing you want. Serious people only use the term in connection with the definition above. That’s what I do because I try to be a serious person.

Recessions are tricky because you only know about them after the fact, when the national statistics come out. Anyone who says, “We are in a recession” is either speculating or making propaganda. Economic commentators try to read the existence of a recession, and the waning of a recession, by studying other economic events. Those are events believed to be associated with recessions and to which numbers are attached that are collected frequently.

Here are two main ones: Unemployment figures and stock market indexes. There are others you can learn about if you become interested. When national unemployment goes down and the main stock market indexes go up for a while, commentators tend to announce the end of a recession. I think that liberal commentators give those a lot of weight under Democrat administrations, and conservative commentators under Republican administrations.

The reading of these signals is not an exact science, by a long shot. I just believe those readings are better than nothing if you take care to follow several. That’s a big “if,” of course.

Incidentally, there are very good scholarly, academic studies regarding the connections between various indicators and economic growth/contraction. I suspect few commentators keep abreast of those. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were none. I would be pleasantly surprised if some did.

Now, on to the current situation. When President Obama took office, it’s pretty clear the US was in a recession, or entering one. The President had nothing to do with it. There was much discussion everywhere about whether his buddies in Congress caused it. Fact is that there have been recessions with Republican as well as with Democratic administrations, and with Congressional domination of one or of the other major party.

The political elites of most countries, including many American Republicans believe in something called “Keynesian economics.” You don’t need to read Keynes to know as much as they do. Here is the gist: In modern developed societies, the government is such a large economic actor that it can influence decisively the path of the national economy. Thus, Keynesians believe that government has the power to stop or to improve on recessions. Governments may do this by engaging in spending, public spending, spending tax money, or borrowed money. (Keep I mind that, with the interesting exception of a few oil rich countries, governments have no money except what they can take in taxes and what they can borrow.)

Real conservatives, and libertarians who are not especially conservative, think that Keynesian economics is a dangerous hoax. They argue that government spending aggravated and deepened past recessions including the one associated with the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties. Fortunately, we don’t have to consider here who is right. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.)

A point that’s not in dispute is that government spending usually entails bigger government debt. More on this later.

Keynesian public spending is forthrightly intended to stem the spread of unemployment. The reasoning is simple: When people lose their job, or fear losing their job, they, and often, their neighbors, spend less. This lowered spending in turn slows down the national economy. This induces more unemployment: If I stop buying my daily latte because I am unemployed, or I fear I might soon be, and if others do the same, the barrista at my local coffee shop will lose her job. And so forth.

The fewer people earn a living, the smaller the national economy. If I merely forgo buying a car for the time being, the indirect effects on the national economy are even worse.

Hence, good Keynesian government spending should have very quick effects. It should stem the spread of unemployment rapidly and durably. It used to be the case that government had the ability to spend money quickly through public works. Hitler, for example, reduced quickly very high German unemployment by hiring the unemployed, and many underemployed, essentially to dig holes: Go to work in the morning; get a government check in the evening; spend the next day.

This approach has become difficult to employ for a variety of reasons, including permitting processes related to safety and to environmentalist zeal. Thus, if my city of Santa Cruz decides to build another breakwater for its harbor today, it’s unlikely anyone will get a paycheck for handling a tool for eighteen months, or more. Most past recessions lasted less than eighteen months.

As I write, only 10% or 15 % of the stimulus package money decreed by the President has been spent. Either, that’s not enough to stem the spread of unemployment, or, it’s not really a spending spree intended to stimulate. If the latter, what’s the purpose?

There is a beginning of an answer if you look at parts of the package that have a well-known name attached. One such is financing for a train from Disneyland to Las Vegas. It was put in by Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader. There is no way the bulk of the corresponding money will be spent until five or even six years from now, except for studies employing a handful of specialists. Those specialists are not suffering from high unemployment, by the way. This part of the package does nothing to put to work Tom, Dick and Harry. The money won’t be spent for a long time because such a project needs a lot of planning, including for permitting to satisfy environmentalists.

What is the real purpose of this part of the stimulus package, then? At least, it makes Harry Reid look good with his voters. At worst, Harry Reed is using his muscle in Congress to satisfy special interests. I don’t know if the latter is true. I have not researched it. It’s plausible.

My conclusion: Even if you subscribe to Keynesian views on how to jump-start a national economy in recession, the measures taken by the administration six months ago do not work and cannot work.

Those who say, “Give it time” don’t know what they are talking about. The essence of government spending for stimulus purposes is speed. If you don’t stop and reverse unemployment quickly, the recessionary spiral worsens. If you did nothing at all, it would stop on its own, in good time, anyway.

Why do I care about the stimulus package’s lack of effectiveness?

Two reasons. First its part of a mass of unprecedented government spending. I mean unprecedented in the absence of a major war, like WWII. It increases public, government indebtedness to a worrying extent. Public debt has consequences, in the long run and in the not- so-long-run. More on this in the next episode of this posting.

The second reason, I care is that I detect a social and political project markedly different from the one announced by the administration in the current oversize government spending. I have not become a conspiracy theorist. I am relying on public information, including the President’s own past statements, those of his close advisers and, above all, my knowledge of what went on in Western Europe between about 1980 and 2000. I will address this alternative project in a subsequent posting also.

You have been good but there will be a quiz!

Current events update:

The Wall Street Journal has a good discussion of the Maine public health plan in today’s issue. It’s on p. A12, in the editorial section. It’s a fiasco. We care because it has important features in common with what we know of Obamacare.

Cool people tend to dismiss Rush Limbaugh, even conservatives. Limbaugh is bombastic and he exaggerates. That’s vulgar. However, he must have an army of good researchers because he comes up within a short time with hard evidence of allegations against his political adversaries. One of the wildest allegations from the right is that Obamacare entails “death boards.” Well, what do you know: Today, on-air, he reads excerpts from a Veterans Administration practitioner guidebook that sounds for all the world to me like a “death book.”

The convicted mass murderer of 270 people  in the air over Lockerbie, Scotland receives a hero’s welcome in his home-country of Libya. He had been freed on compassionate grounds by the gutless Scottish Minister of Justice. (Yes, there is such a thing.) I saw it on television. This is not hearsay.

I think the enthusiasm greeting him in Libya should be written in the accounts book. It should enter into any calculus, side-by-side with collateral damage, next time this country has reason to consider bombing anything in Libya. It should not be long.

It’s unreasonable to treat in exactly the same way those who hate us and those who harbor sheer evil in their hearts, and our old friends. The stupid  Scots should get a pass. The evil  Libyans shouldn’t. There is no ethical system in the world that requires that this country do otherwise, not even Christianity. You are supposed to forgive your enemies after they have stopped harming you, not while they are cutting your throat, not even when they are impotently clamoring  their wish to do it.

By the way, I am told by those who should know that Arabs respect this kind of thinking.

Links From Around the Web

Co-editor Fred Foldvary on the destruction of the Libertarian Party.

Newest member of the consortium, Warren Gibson, writes in the Freeman about GDP.

Ninos Malek on associating in peace.

Jacques Delacroix questions Ron Paul’s credibility.

And writing over in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf celebrates the failed boycott attempts of Rush Limbaugh’s show.

I just started school today, so if you don’t hear from me for a while, you now know why.  Have a great spring!