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.

No, natural disasters are not good for the economy.

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

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

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

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

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

Did the Thirty Glorious Years Actually Exist?

Okay, I am going for a flashy title here. I should have asked whether the Thirty Glorious were as glorious as they are meant to be. This is a question that matters in debates about both inequality and the often-bemoaned growth slowdown.

In the past (say before 1950), labor force participation was quite low (relative to today) by virtue of large family sizes and most married women not working. However, when they were at-home, these married women produced something. That something was simply not included in our national accounts. When they entered the labor force, they produced less of that something. However, since it had never been measured, we never subtracted that something from the actual output generated from their increased participation.

Even before the 1950s, this mattered considerably as growth tended to be heavily underestimated (by 0.3 percentage points from 1870 to 1890, overestimated by 0.38 points from 1890 to 1910 and by 0.06 percentage points from 1910 to 1930).This was at a time when variations between the household economy and the market economy were small. Imagine the importance of overestimates since the 1950s! In a short comment reply to Emily Skarbek last year, I pointed out that adjusting for the size of the household economy meant that 1/7th of Canada’s economic growth from 1960 to 1997 (see image below and this was before one additional surge of labor participation resulting from daycare and unemployment policy reforms).

SEcularStagnation2

Recently, I found an old book in my library. It is Kenneth Boulding’s Structure of a Modern EconomyIn it, he makes this exact same argument. Basically, actual output today is overestimated relative to output in the past. And there are many, many, many other articles on this. In all cases, the rate of growth is heavily reduced. In a way, that means that the Thirty Glorious are less glorious (which makes the growth stagnation argument seem more defensible).

And you know what? This is consistent with attempts to correct inequality measures. Most of the attempts made to correct inequality for age, number of workers per household, the size of household and prices, they generally increase very modestly the income growth of the bottom centiles and decrease appreciably the actual level of growth of incomes at the top. While these corrections reduce the level of inequality (and the growth thereof), they also reduce the growth rate of incomes.

Is it possible that the correction to make inequality measures more comparable over time are allow us to see the point about overestimating growth since the 1950s? It means that the Thirty Glorious aren’t that glorious (at the very least, they’re overestimated). It also means that someone who could follow some of the proposed corrections to national income accounts (generally, the best source for this is the Review of Income and Wealth) for every year since 1929 (starting date of the US national accounts which could be extended by using Kuznets’s national income measures from 1913 to 1929) could propose the “actual output” of the country and see how glorious the 1945-1975 period was. That is the work of economic historians to do!

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?