Along with ‘Inequality’ and ‘Democratic socialism’, ‘Sustainability‘ is one of the words that captures the essence of my generation. A sustainable project, event or business is met with “wow”s and “oooh!”s, an indicator of its owner’s moral righteousness and altogether praiseworthy character.
But its meaning is far from clear from all but its most fervent supporters. Dealing with the extraction of resources, the use of ecological reserves or harvesting of crops, a process is allegedly ‘sustainable’ if the naturally occurring regeneration exceeds the current levels of extraction. Simply put, don’t use more than what is (annually?) renewed. Moreover, a process branded as sustainable usually involve a mix of some other virtue signalling activities of our time: carbon emission neutrality or offsetting; at least a superficial concern for one’s environmental impact; energy produced in ‘renewable’ ways (read: nothing but solar, wind or hydro); or the use of recycled materials.
If this sounds unobjectionable and self-evident to you, this piece is for you. Despite the fancy branding, the SDGs, the fervor of self-proclaimed do-gooders, is the ‘sustainability’ of an activity really what we care about?
There are at least two major confusions with the assessment of activities as sustainable or its despised opposite: unsustainable. First, and most frequently occurring, is the belief that we aim to pursue our current endeavor in the same way for all eternity. If you think about it, the indignant objection of unsustainability is often quite meaningless, worthy of nothing but a ‘so what?’ response; everything we do at any given moment is in a sense “unsustainable”:
- if I keep typing on my computer I will eventually starve;
- if I keep lifting weights or endlessly running on that treadmill, I will collapse;
- if I keep eating this chocolate cake of mine, I will be sick.
So? Everyone who has ever engaged in those activities understand that there are ends to them, that we’re only doing them for a particular purpose for a certain period of time, and that extrapolating snapshots of reality is quite silly; I do not intend to continue this activity until the brink of whatever physical boundary there might – or might not – be. Until I approach some “safe” distance to that brink, I’ll happily indulge in my chocolate cake, lift my weights or type away at my keyboard. In economic speak we are trading off one resource for another, until saturation or the fulfillment of some other aim becomes more important (prime example is Environmental Kuznets Curves).
The other confusion is to believe that economic systems cannot change and that humans cannot adapt. It is emphatically irrelevant that there is a physically limited amount of oil in the ground, since price systems and their incentives effectively ration oil use according to urgently-induced needs and encourage substitutes when those are needed. More importantly, the price system for raw materials incorporate and incentivize technological improvements that 1) through discovering new deposits literally expands “the” amount of resources, 2) shape cost-effective processes to hard-to-access deposits we couldn’t profitably exploit before, 3) improve the bang for our buck, i.e. how much output we can squeeze out of a given quantity of material. Thus, there might ultimately be a physical limit, but not an economic limit.
Let me give an iconic example: chopping down trees quicker than the forest grows. Such an activity seem pretty ‘unsustainable’ since the declining size of the forest implies that one day there will no longer be a forest. So what? There might be urgent present reasons for doing that (say, for instance, no other source of heat/fuel for cooking or no other source of income) that are very likely to change in a fairly short time frame (ie, before complete deforestation has occurred); the current prices of pulp or firewood may be meaningfully higher than their anticipated future prices (‘selling’ off some capital assets would therefore be fairly prudent); there might be future technological innovations that a) (re-)grows forests quicker, b) offers a better substitute to the current use of wood, c) allows us to cheaply make use of more from what we chop down.
Almost any practice taken as a snap-shot in time is literally ‘unsustainable’. Naively believing that they will mindlessly continue linearly into the future is quite silly; hailing processes that don’t as righteous and ‘sustainable’ is similarly silly. Human societies and their economic process are dynamic systems capable of (read: constantly) change.
By saying that something is unsustainable, my generation wants to convey the idea that these activities are immoral and that they shouldn’t continue. It’s a naive and erroneously nonsensical conviction.
We tend to think about innovation as inventions and particularly about the inventors associated with them: Newton, Edison, Jobs, Archimedes, Watt, Arkwright. This Great Man Theory of incredible technical innovation is mostly implicitly held by quite a few of us, celebrating these great men and their deeds.
Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything among other credentials, has spent a lot of time and effort in recent years arguing against this theory. In his recent Hayek Lecture to the British Institute of Economic Affairs he convincingly outlines his case: so many independent innovations take place roughly at the same time by different people. The Great Man Theory leads us to believe that hadn’t it been for Edison, we’ll all be in the dark and humanity deprived ofall the benefits that came with the innovation.
Not so. There were a great number of contemporary inventors who came upon versions of the lightbulb (Ridley cites 21 or 23 or them, depending on whom you include) around the same time as Edison. The story can be repeated for most other great inventions we know of: laws of thermodynamics, calculus, most metals, typewriting machines, jet engines, the ATM, Oxygen. Indeed, the phenomenon is so common that it has its own term: simultaneous invention.
It seems, in complete contrast to the Great Man Theory, that history provided a certain problem, a sufficient number of people working on solving it at a certain time, and eventually similar inventions taking place around the same time. The process is, Ridley concludes, “gradual, incremental, collective yet inescapable inevitable […] it was bound to happen when it did”.
Interestingly enough for those of us schooled and fascinated by spontaneous orders and bottom-up social and economic phenomena, the Great Man Theory is remarkably similar to other beliefs about the world. It is a symptom of the same reasoned short-comings that makes us humans susceptible to believing in zero-sum thinking, top-down organizing and “design-implies-a-designer”. Instead of grasping the deep insights of gains from trade, spontaneous order or evolution, we are tempted by the militaristically directed organizations that we believe we understand rather than the emergent order of many independently acting individuals’ trials and errors.
Precisely this bias makes us susceptible to the mistake Mariana Mazzucato has become famous for wholeheartedly embracing: the idea that, whatever the innovation, government probably did it. That government innovation is productive – or at least more productive than is commonly presumed – and indeed societies can greatly benefit from ramping up government R&D spending. Nevermind incentives, track records or statistical robustness.
Indeed, what Ridley points to is precisely that valuable and life-changing innovation cannot be directed. Admittedly, some innovation does occur in labs, but only a vanishingly small part. Mazzucato and other top-downers could have benefited greatly from listening to Ridley (or reading his book The Rational Optimist; or reading Demsetz’ devastating 1969 article ‘Information and Efficiency’).
Coming full circle and espousing the Hayekian insights, Ridley notes that the price is everything. Specifically the reduction in prices is what matters for innovations to be spread and adopted rather than the ideas themselves. Very little happens in terms of adoption and transmission until prices start to fall dramatically (hint, hint, Bitcoin… or nuclear energy, or renewable energy…). Like the printing press and the steam engine, interesting things start to happen when prices fall – not because an innovation is particularly cool in some subsection of society.
Innovation is a deeply decentralized yet deeply collective process. We face similar challenges that occassionally come to similar conclusions – and history would in all likelihood have progress exactly the same had we not had a Newton or Edison or Jobs.
I’m getting tired of reading and listening to so-called libertarian or conservative people saying that “in theory socialism is beautiful.” No, it’s not. In theory, socialism can be summed up as “the end of private property.” This is how Karl Marx summed it up. The genius of Ludwig von Mises is precisely in the fact that he did not have to wait until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to realize that this does not make sense. When the Soviet Union was still a young country sweeping intellectuals around the world, von Mises made the following remark: without private property, there is no supply and demand. Without supply and demand, there is no price formation. Without prices the economic calculation is impossible. And that is precisely what happened in the USSR and happens in countries that follow the path of socialism: without the compass of free market prices, governors can not make decisions about allocating resources. Socialism is the death of rationality in economics. Socialism is rubbish in practice because before that it’s rubbish in theory. Please stop talking nonsense. The free market, on the other hand, is beautiful in practice because first of all, it is beautiful in theory.
Well folks, another year has come and gone. 2017 was Notes On Liberty‘s busiest year yet. Traffic came from all over the place, with the most visits coming from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and India. (In the past, India and Germany have vied for that coveted 5th place spot, but this year India blew Germany out of the water.)
Speaking of Vincent, 2017 was his year. He had Tyler Cowen (MarginalRevolution), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy), Barry Ritholtz (Bloomberg), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), John Tamny (RealClearMarkets) and Pseudoerasmus (a well-regarded economic historian) all link to his thoughts multiple times over the course of the year. His Top 10 list for best papers/books in recent economic history (Part 1 and Part 2) were legitimate viral sensations, dominating the top 2 spots on NOL‘s most-read list. Other huge posts included “Did the 30 Glorious Years Actually Exist? (#5),” “The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health (#9),” “James Buchanan on racism,” “The GDP, real wages and working hours of France since the 13th century,” “Did 89% of American Millionaires Disappear During the Great Depression?,” and “A hidden cost of the war on drugs.” My personal favorite was his “Star Trek Did More For the Cultural Advancement of Women Than Government Policies.” Dr Geloso’s thoughts made up 40% of NOL‘s 10 most-read 2017 posts.
My favorite posts from Edwin this year were his analyses of Dutch politics – “Dutch politics, after the elections” and “North Korea at the North Sea?” – but the reading public seemed to enjoy his posts on Ayn Rand, especially her thought on international relations, and his summary of Mont Pelerin Europe more than anything else. Van de Haar’s day job is in the private sector, so his blogging is understandably light (especially given his incredible publishing output in academic journals). I look forward to what looms ahead in 2018.
Federico’s most recent post on artificial intelligence and the law got love from some major outlets, including FT‘s Alphaville blog and 3 Quarks Daily. His question “Does business success make a good statesmen?” and his report on a Latin American Liberty summit are worth reading again, but my personal favorites were his comments on other Notewriters’ thoughts: first jumping in to add some historical clarity to Bruno’s post on Latin American conservatism and then to add layers onto the debate between Mark and Bruno on the Protestant Reformation. Federico has been invaluable to NOL‘s welcoming, skeptical culture and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with in 2018.
Barry was generous enough recount the situation in Turkey after the coup earlier in the year, and fruits of this endeavor – Coup and Counter Coup in Turkey – can be found in six parts:
- “First of a series of posts on Turkey since 15th July 2016 and background topics“
- “Immediately after the coup and party politics“
- “Gülenists and Kemalists“
- “The Kurdish issue in Turkey“
- “Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey“
- “Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey“
Dr Stocker also began writing an appendix to his six-part series, which resulted in a first post on authoritarianism and electoral fixes. Barry is hard at work on a new book, and of course the situation in Turkey is less than ideal, so I can only hope he has a bit more time in 2018 for NOL.
Michelangelo had a banner year at NOL. His #microblogging has been fun, as were his post analyzing relevant data from his surveys: What libertarians think of climate change, for example, or urban planning in Oregon. Michelangelo also utilized NOL to play around with concepts like race, marriage markets, data, Spanish language services, affirmative action, and freeware, to name a few. My absolute favorite Michelangelo post this year was his excellent “Should we tax churches? A Georgist proposal.” Michelangelo is a PhD candidate right now, too, so if he ever gets some time to himself, watch out world!
Rick also had a banner year at NOL. His post arguing against Net Neutrality was one of the most-read articles of the year here (#4), and many of his wonkier thoughts have been picked up by the sharp eye of Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy) and the excellent Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling). Rick is my favorite blogger. Posts on cycling in Amsterdam, subsidies, management and measurement, linguistics, more subsidies, and my personal favorite of his for the year, “Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared,” always make me think and, more importantly, smile.
Bruno’s blogging was also amply rewarded this year. His thoughts on some of the problems with postmodernism brought in the most eyeballs, but thankfully he didn’t stop there: Articles introducing postmodernism and highlighting the origins of postmodernism also generated much interest. RealClearWorld picked up his post analyzing Brazil post-Rousseff (he had more analysis of Brazilian politics here and here), and his post delving into whether Nazism is of the left or the right provoked quite the dialogue. Dr Rosi was at his best, though, when prompted by Mark to further advance his argument that the Protestant Revolution played an integral role in the rise of the freedom of conscience. Times are tough in Brazil right now, so I can only hope that Bruno continues to play a vital role as a Notewriter in 2018.
Chhay Lin, now in the private sector, had his post about Bruce Lee’s application of Taoist philosophy head to the top of reddit’s philosophy sub, and his post on Catalonia and secession got love from RealClearWorld and Lew Rockwell (Political Theater). I hate to be *that* guy distracting a man from making his money, but I hope to see Chhay Lin pop in at NOL much more often in 2018!
Zak has been busy with a number of different projects, as well as attending Michigan-Ann Arbor full-time. He still managed to have one of his posts, on “libertarian” activist hypocrisy (#10), highlighted in the Guardian, the UK’s premier left-wing mouthpiece. His post on The Nancy MacLean Disgrace earned him plaudits from the online libertarian community and Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), and his posts on open borders and income inequality show just how much of a bad ass he has become. I had a tough time trying to pick out my favorite Zak article of 2017, so I’m just gonna highlight all three of them:
- “Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process“
- “Why I’m No Longer A Christian…“
- “Against Libertarian Populism“
They’ve all got great self-explanatory titles, so do yourself a favor and read ’em again! Hopefully Zak can continue to work NOL in to his many successful ventures in 2018.
Jacques continues to amaze me. He’s been retired from academia for – as far as I can tell – at least a decade and he’s still producing great material that’s able to reach all sorts of people and places. His post on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism (#6), which was featured at RealClearWorld and much-shared in Ottomanist corners of Twitter – took aim at popular American libertarian understandings of decentralization and seems to have landed pretty squarely on target. My favorite post of Dr Delacroix’ this year was about French Africa (also featured at RealClearWorld), but his late-year book review on Christopher De Bellaigue’s 2017 book about Islam might end up being a classic.
Bill’s 2017 here at NOL was productive and he continues to impress. His “Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal” brought in thousands of readers, but it was not his ability to draw crowds that I found impressive. His ability to tackle tough concepts and tough issues came to the forefront this year: drug use, “vulvæ,” more drug use, party culture (my personal fave), schooling (another personal fave), more schooling, and music (personal fave). Bill’s ability to weave these trends together through the lens of individual freedom is so much fun to read and important for fostering a culture of tolerance and respect in today’s world. I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for him!
Nicolás came out firing on all cylinders this year. With excellent dialogues between himself and Vincent, as well as between himself and guest blogger Derrill Watson (who I hope will be back for more in 2018), Dr Cachanosky’s passion for teaching has shown through clearly and brightly. I hope 2018 – his first full year with NOL – is filled with much more hard-hitting but insightful blogging from Nicolás.
Ash brought the heat, too. Check out the subject matter of his first few posts here at NOL: “A Right is Not an Obligation,” “Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods,” “The Economics of Hard Choices,” “Markets for Secrets?,” “A Tax is Not a Price,” and “A Radical Take on Science and Religion.” Like Nicolás, Ash’s first full year at NOL is coming up, and if 2017 is any indication, readers can look forward to an interesting and engaging 2018.
Mark’s first full year here at NOL was a definite barnburner. His debate with Bruno on the Protestant Reformation (#8) brought in a bunch of eyeballs, including from RealClearHistory, while his “The Return of Cyclical Theories of History” also brought in thousands of readers, thanks in large part to Robert Cottrell’s excellent website, the Browser. Dr Koyama’s review of Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past also caught Mr Cottrell’s eye and the attention of his readers. Mark’s post on geopolitics and Asia’s “little divergence” is well worth reading again, too. Like Zak and Bill’s posts, I couldn’t choose just one favorite, so I give you two:
- “Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe“
- “Some Thoughts on State Capacity” (an especially good criticism of American libertarian understandings of the “state capacity” literature)
We’re lucky to have Mark here at NOL.
Kevin, like Ash and Nicolás, brought the ruckus for his first few posts here at NOL. Kevin’s very first post at Notes On Liberty – “Rules of Warfare in Pre-Modern Societies” (#3) – ended up on the front page of RealClearHistory while his “Paradoxical geniuses…” earned a spot on the Browser‘s prestigious reading list. Not a bad start. Kevin will be finishing up the second half of his first year of law school (at Duke), so I doubt we’ll see much of him until June or July of 2018. My personal favorite, by the way, was Kevin’s “Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command.” His posts on taking over Syria – Roman style, the median voter theorem, and inventions that didn’t change the world also got lots of love from around the web.
Nick’s post on public choice and Nancy MacLean (#7) earned a nod from Arnold Kling (askblog), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), and pretty much the entire online libertarian community, while his post analyzing the UK’s snap election earned a spot at RealClearWorld. Dr Cowen’s thoughts on school choice and robust political economy, as well as a sociological analysis of Trump/Brexit prompted by Vincent, all garnered love from libertarians and scholars around the world. My favorite Cowen post was his question “Is persecution the purpose?”
Overall, it was a hell of a year here at Notes On Liberty. I’m really looking forward to 2018. Here’s to a happy, healthy you. Oh, and my proudest piece this year was “North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world.” HAPPY NEW YEAR!
In a previous post I comment on a too common economic fallacy, that a natural disaster is good for the economy because of its alleged impact on GDP. Economic fallacies are not the only misconceptions gaining momentum during a natural disaster, but a confusion between reality and fiction becomes also quite common. The issue of price gouging provides a good example of this situation.
After a natural disaster, the price of certain goods such as water or gas, increases significantly. This is seen as an immoral exploitation by merchants who are taking advantage of the people affected by the natural disaster. Even though in this post I want to comment on another issue, it is worth mentioning that the now limited resources should be allocated to those in most need (rather than, for instance, to whoever happens to be the first one in line.) And unless someone has a crystal ball, there is no way of knowing who is in most need without changes in relative prices.
The mention to reality versus fiction refers to the fact that the critics of price gouging seem to (implicitly) assume that the natural disaster did not occur. It is plausible to assume that an event like this would (1) shift the supply to the left [reduce supply of goods] and (2) shift the demand to the right [increase the demand of goods.] At the usual (or “normal”) price these goods are in serious shortage.
This means that in the event of a natural disaster the option is between (1) having goods at a higher price or (2) not having goods at the “normal” price. This is the new reality. The old and normal reality does not exist anymore. To limit price gouging results in a lower price in the store, but not goods on the shelf. This would not help those in need. The fiction consists in thinking that a larger supply can be secured without an increase in the price (why should we assume supply is horizontal when these goods usually have a low elasticity?) An efficient policy would secure the provision of goods rather than secure a low price without the goods. Reality, rather than fiction, should be the first driver of a policy designed to assist during a natural disaster. As Milton Friedman insisted, a policy is to be valuated by its results (or design), not by its intentions.
The first rule for an efficient policy should be to not get in the way of changes in relative prices. Otherwise help will become erratic and inefficient. It might be more efficient, for instance, to make use of firms specialized in logistics (i.e. firms such as Walmart) and subsidize the demand than start a price control policy. For instance, a tax credit or a check can be sent to those affected by the natural disaster allowing them to pay the now higher prices. Similarly, a subsidy can be given to those firms bringing goods to the damaged areas (who says the government has the monopoly of charity or that the only one who can do it efficiently?) A policy on these lines would be more efficient than interfering with relative prices.
However, some opponents of price gouging seem to be more interested in damaging merchants than in making sure resources will be efficiently allocated among the ones affected by the natural disaster. Those who do not oppose price gouging do so because they have the affected ones first in line. It is not about merchant’s revenue, it is about allocating goods efficiently. Damaging the merchants should not be more important than worsening the situation of those in need.
According to The Economist, the latest US federal budget includes incentives for “congestion pricing” of roads.
Ostensibly, this is about reducing congestion. But some municipalities like the idea of charging for roads because it represents a new revenue stream. This creates an incentive to charge a price above cost. When a firm does this, we call it a “monopoly price.”
But when a government monopoly forces you to pay a fee to use a good or service, do not call it a price. It is a fee that a government collects by fiat. In other words, it is a tax.
A price is a voluntary exchange of money for a good or service. The emphasis on voluntary is important, because it is this aspect of the price that enables economic calculation for what people really want. Even a free market “monopolist” (however unlikely or conceptually vague it may be) engages in voluntary exchange.
On the other hand, a bureaucrat “playing market” by imposing fees on government-controlled goods and services will not have the same results as a market process. For starters, unlike a person making decisions on their own behalf, a government bureaucrat has to guess at costs. Under a voluntary system, a cost is the highest valued good or service you voluntarily give up in order to attain a goal. But the bureaucrat is dealing with other people’s money.
To “objectively” determine costs, in order to set “fair” prices, is a chimera. In the words of Ludwig von Mises, “[a] government can no more determine prices than a goose can lay hen’s eggs.”
Under heat recently as President Trump has criticized supply management in Canada and retaliated against it, the different provincial associations representing dairy farmers have moved on the offensive. To promote the virtues of this system meant to reduce production in order to prop up prices through the use of trade tariffs, production quotas and price controls (how can we call those virtues), these unions have produced numerous infographics to make their case. It is even part of what they dub their These-infographics-show-that-diary-prices-are-lower-in-Canada-than-elsewhere, that milk is still a cheap drink relative to other type of drinks and those prices, supposedly, increase more slowly than elsewhere. All of these graphics are dishonest and must be dismantled.
The most egregious of these infographics – present in the “lobby day kit” – shows the price of milk in Australia (1.55 CAD), Canada (1.45 CAD) and New Zealand (1.65 CAD). They are seemingly using 2014 prices. First of all, they use data that conflicts massively with the reports of Statistics Canada that suggest that milk prices hover between 2.33$ to 2.48$ per liter. Their data is provided by AC Nielsen but no justification is presented as to why they are better than Statistics Canada. The truth is that it is not better. Participants in Nielsen surveys come from a self-selected pool of storeowners who wish to participate and are then selected by Nielsen to be part of the data collection. Then, they can record prices. It should be mentioned that not all regions of Canada are covered in the data. Although the Nielsen data does have some uses (especially with regards to market studies), it hardly measures up Statistics Canada when comes the time to evaluate price levels. This is because the government agency collects information from all regions and tries a broader sweep of retailers in order to create the consumer price index.
But an even larger problem is that, in their comparison of prices, they don’t mention that New Zealand taxes milk. In New Zealand, all food items are subjected to sales tax, which is not the case in Canada and Australia. Hence, when they compare retail prices, they are comparing prices that exclude taxes and prices that include taxes. One would like to find if they acknowledge this fact in the methodological mentions, but there are none!
Using prices available at Numbeo.com and Expatisan.com and the exchange rates made available by the Bank of Canada, we can correct for this problem of theirs. Simply changing prices source leads to a massively different result with regards to Australia whose milk prices are lower than in Canada. Secondly, once we adjust for the sales tax in New Zealand, we find that prices in New Zealand are lower than in Canada. In fact they are lower than in one of Canada’s cheapest market, Montreal (let alone Toronto or Vancouver). So the infographic they show in order to lobby governments is a fabrication.
Table 1: The real price of milk
|Using Numbeo.com (regular milk)|
|Unadjusted||Adjusted for taxes|
|Australia||$ 1.59||$ 1.59|
|New Zealand||$ 2.26||$ 1.97|
|Canada||$ 1.99||$ 1.99|
|Using Expatisan.com (whole milk)|
|Unadjusted||Adjusted for taxes|
|Sydney||$ 1.82||$ 1.47|
|Wellington||$ 2.42||$ 2.10|
|Montreal||$ 2.87||$ 2.87|
Source: Numbeo.com and Expatisan.com, consulted May 16th 2014 and the Bank of Canada’s currency converter. Note: using the Statistics Canada price would make Canada’s situation even worse by comparison.
This is part of a pattern of deceit since they also massage data for numerous other graphs that are presented to Canadians in efforts to convince them of the virtues of supply management. One other example is an infographic that presents a figure of nominal milk prices in Australia before and after the abolition of supply management. Given that prices seem more volatile after 2000 and that they increase more steeply, they try to make us believe that liberalization was a failure. This is not the case. Any sensible policy analyst would deflate nominal prices by the general price index to control for inflation. When one does just that using the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one sees that real prices stabilized in the first ten years of deregulation after increasing roughly 15% in the decade prior. And since 2010, real prices have been falling constantly.
Other examples abound. In one instance, the Quebec union of dairy farmers circulated an infographic meant to show that nominal prices for dairy products increased faster in the United States than in Canada. Again, they omit inflation. Since 1990 (their own starting date), prices of dairy products have risen more slowly than inflation – indicating a decline in real prices. In Canada, the opposite occurred – inflation increased more slowly than dairy prices indicating an increase of the real price.
The debate around supply management is complicated. The policy course to adopt in order to improve agricultural productivity and lower prices for Canadians is hard to pinpoint. But whatever position one may hold, no one is well-served by statistical manipulations offered by the unions representing dairy farmers.
I have just completed a short piece on the impact of regional prices on the measurement and geographic distribution of low income individuals. Basically, Youcef Msaid and myself* used the March 2012-CPS data combined the BEA’s regional purchasing power parities database to correct incomes.
We found is that the level of inequality is very modestly overestimated (0.5%). Now this is a conservative estimate since we used state-level corrections for price differences. This means that we took price corrections for New York state as a whole even if there are wide differences within New York state. Obviously, with more fine-grained price-level adjustments we would find a bigger correction but it is hard to imagine that it could surpass 1-3%.
That was not our most important result. Our most important result relates to where the bottom decile of the income distribution is geographically located. We find that instead of being found disproportionately (relative to their share of the total US population) in poorer states, the bottom decile is disproportionately found in rich states. The dotted black line in the figure below illustrates the change in the number of individuals who are, nationally, in the bottom 10%. New York and California have significant increases while West Virginia has a large decrease. The dark black line shows the same for the top 10%.
Another way to grasp the magnitude of this change is to relate the change to the population shares of each decile by state. For example, New York had 6.29% of the US population in 2012 and 6.61% of all Americans in the bottom 10% of the income distribution before adjusting for regional purchasing parities. After adjusting however, New York’s share of the bottom 10% surges to 7.88%.
Why does it matter? Because most of the cost difference adjustments come from differences in housing costs. The first obvious point is that housing is a crucial aspect of any discussion of inequality. The second, but less obvious point, is that these differences are massive barriers to migration within the United States and the poorest are those for whom these barriers are the heaviest. Unfortunately, the high-cost areas are also high-productivity areas (New York, San Francisco for example) whose high costs are largely the result of restrictions on the supply of housing. This means that high-productivity areas – which would raise the wages of low-skilled and low -income workers are inaccessible to them. It also means that those who were present before the increase in productivity of these areas capitalized the gains in more valuable real estates (even if this means lower real incomes).
In this light, the geographic reallocation of the bottom 10% is consistent with an emerging literature that argues that inequality is in great a result of housing policy (see notably Rognlie’s reply to Piketty in the Brookings Papers). This small modification (I consider it small) that me and Youcef made has important logical ramifications.
* Thank you to my friends Rick Weber (who blogs here at NOL and whose research can be seen here) and Ryan Murphy (whose research can be found here) who provided good comments to bring the paper to the stage where we are ready to submit.
This post is for Democrats and Republicans, not libertarians. Let’s take it for granted that we want to help poor people and we’re willing to use the coercive power of government to do so.* The trouble with the interventions below is so troubling that we don’t even have to bother about having a deep philosophical debate. I’m not trying to change your destination, I’m just trying to get you to get out of that explosive Ford Pinto.
Minimum wage, water pricing, education, and just about all of American health care finance involves distorting markets to give charity and/or gifts. Essentially, they change rules so that group X pays Y instead of Z with the hope that X can afford it and Z can do more good with the money than Y. But this indirect giving has serious flaws.
Take the case of the minimum wage: it’s supposed to help the working poor by making their boss and consumers pay a bit more for their services. Of course it might simply be to help interest groups, and that further raises the burden of proof for those who would prefer a minimum wage to less invasive alternatives.
So what is this less invasive alternative? Cash transfers. We’ve already got some imperfect versions of this. School vouchers, food stamps, and a host of other welfare programs. What I want to see is a simpler version that takes the best features of these programs to eliminate the problems created by market interventions.
The economics of this proposal are simple and important. Prices are essential to help people use resources wisely. Interfering with the market process makes those prices less effective at communicating information about value and opportunity cost. And with an interconnected markets, a small price control can lead to worse decisions being made all across an economy.
Simple economics tells us that if we impose a minimum wage (or give special tax treatment to XYZ, or whatever) then something’s got to give. It might be higher unemployment, it might be worse working conditions, or it might simply be that rich people are a little less rich than before.
(It’s worth remembering that rich people are people too; even lawyers. They can do good and bad things, and those actions determine their moral quality, not their wealth per se… we don’t want to redistribute wealth for its own sake, we want to do so if/because we think it will do some good. The hope is that the harm of a few bucks out of your pocket does more good for the poor people who get that cash. And no, it’s not possible for “corporations” to suffer; corporations aren’t people, but they are owned by people.)
Consider the case of feeding the poor. It’s not hard (even for non-economists) to imagine how imposing price controls on food could lead to shortages. If there’s one thing we learned from socialism, it’s that bread lines are bad. Food stamps are a much simpler and targeted solution.
We should prefer straightforward transfers over market intervention because it will do more good at less cost. More importantly, it is humbler–distorting markets requires a lot of information, transfers don’t.
Transferring money rarely jives well with American intuition, and that brings up an important bundle of issues: responsibility and social engineering.
Republicans, for all their talk about the importance of individual responsibility, seem unwilling to let the poor exercise it themselves. They’re sure that enough poor people will abuse the system that some bureaucrat needs to exercise responsibility for them. Similarly, Democrats want to ensure the dignity of the poor, but how is anyone supposed to remain dignified while navigating labyrinthine bureaucracy?
The left should like cash transfers because they can help those we want to help, and take advantage of the information available to those with intimate knowledge of their context. The right should like it because it can replace a series of bloated bureaucracies while returning responsibility to the poor. Everyone should like that it will be cheaper and more effective than what we’ve currently got while creating better prospects for long-run economic growth.
We should absolutely debate whether specific transfers are a good idea (particularly middle-income to middle-income transfers like higher ed subsidies, mortgage interest subsidies, etc.), but for those programs we ultimately take on, we shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by trying to do good by screwing up markets.
*As an economics professor I get to see what economic superstitions recent high school grads have. I’m struck with the confusion between the health of government and the health of the country a government is supposed to be helping. A related pair of confusions is that what a government can do, it should do; and if something isn’t already happening, and might be nice, government should make it so.
Missing from these superstitions is that the fundamental feature of government is force. What differentiates government from any other non-profit organization, is that charities and associations can’t put you in jail if you choose not to behave as they see fit. But for the sake of clarity, let’s put aside that issue and just focus on how the government can help the poor.
The sun is setting and people start settling in for bed instead of staying up late and watching TV. As fast as battery technology advances, it’s imperfect so we deal with it by using less electricity at night. Similarly, on windy days, people stay inside, but leave once the wind calms down and it’s nicer to be outside. This is a world where people are in tune with the weather and adjust their behavior accordingly.
How can we get such a world? Education won’t be enough (though it will be necessary) because, let’s face it, people are creatures of habit, and lazy people (i.e. 80%+ of the population) would rather leave any given habit alone. We could try to mandate behavior, but that will be costly and the Law of Unintended Consequences promises ironic blow-back.*
Luckily there’s a fairly simple way to effectively nudge people in the direction we (environmentalist-types) would like to see: flexible prices! In a world where a lot of electricity is generated by solar and wind** market determined prices would automatically encourage people to conserve resources and set the pace of their lives to match natural rhythms. Will it be enough? Probably not, but it will certainly be an essential step in the right direction.
* I recently came across the following in The Complete Walker:
I’m tempted to suggest they [trowels] be made obligatory equipment for everyone who backpacks into a national park or forest. I resist the temptation, though–not only because (human nature being what it is, thank God) any such ordinance would drive many worthy people in precisely the undesired direction but also because blanket decrees are foreign to whatever it is a man goes out into wilderness to seek, and bureaucratic decrees are worst of all because they tend to accumulate and perpetuate and harden when they’re administered, as they so often are, by people who revel in enforcing petty ukases. Anyways, a rule that’s impossible to enforce is a bad rule. (p. 698)
** Obviously the likelihood of such a world is a whole ‘nuther can of worms. Let’s leave that for another post.