What is going on in Brazil

I’ve been thinking about writing a short essay about some of the things going on in Brazil right now, especially concerning politics and economics, for my English speaking friends. I guess one can get really lost in the middle of so much news, and to the best of my knowledge, some left-leaning journalists are saying quite some nonsense already. So here we go!

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a year ago. Her party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) is officially a social democrat party, close to the European social democracy tradition, i.e., socialists who want to attain power through a non violent, non revolutionary path. In the end, as it happens with so many big parties, PT has many internal tendencies and in-fighting, but I believe the party can be summarized especially in two tendencies.

On one hand you have cultural Marxists, in the Frankfurt School but even more in the Antonio Gramsci tradition. Many people in PT and other Brazilian socialist parties understood long ago that they had to win a cultural war before they won the political war. And so, these factions are much more interested in feminism, gay rights, and minority rights in general than in anything else. To the best of my knowledge, this is a strategy that backfires somewhat: cultural Leftism is a self defeating philosophy, and so, cultural Marxists are more and more into a witch hunt that damages even themselves. They make a lot of noise, to be sure, but they can’t run a country.

On the other hand, many Brazilian socialists are almost entirely pragmatic. It seems that they forgot about Marxism long ago, and are somehow even convinced of the Washington Consensus. They know basic economics, such as money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s no such thing as free lunch. But they also don’t want to lose face, and most importantly, don’t want to lose position. So, they surely won’t take measures that really shrink the size of the state to a healthy degree.

Dilma’s supporters still say she was the victim of a coup. Of course, she wasn’t. She was impeached with overwhelming evidence of her wrongdoings according to Brazilian law. Other than that, it is hard to believe in a coup where all branches of government agree and the military are not involved in any way. Eventually her supporters sophisticated the argument by saying she was the victim of a “parliamentary coup.” It is nonsense, but if we take it with a grain of salt we can be reminded of something important in Brazilian politics – or politics in general. Dilma was not impeached because of her wrongdoings. Many politicians in Brazil have done similar or worse things than her. She was impeached because she lost support, mostly in the legislative branch. For the wrong reasons (opposition to Dilma), the representatives did the right thing.

One of the problems that Brazil faces today is that the same congress that impeached Dilma for the wrong reasons expects from her successor, Michel Temer, the political favors they used to get from Dilma’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. But these favors are not cheap. Other than that, even if he is a crook, Temer seems to realize that Brazil can’t suffer any more socialism. In the end Brazil is facing some (sort of) free market reforms, but without really shaking the basis of a state too big to function properly.

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Minimum Wages: Where to Look for Evidence

A recent study on the effect of minimum wages in the city of Seattle has produced some conflicted reactions. As most economists expected, the significant increase in the minimum wage resulted in job losses and bankruptcies. Others, however, doubt the validity of the results given that the sample may be incomplete.

In this post I want to focus just one empirical problem. An incomplete sample in itself may not be a problem. The issue is whether or not the observations missing from the sample are relevant. This problem has been pointed out before as the Russian Roulette Effect, which consists in asking survivors of the increase in minimum wages if the increase in minimum wages have put them out of business. Of course, the answer is no. In regards to Seattle, a concern might be that fast food chains such as McDonald’s are not properly included in the study.

The first reaction is, so what? Why is that a problem? If the issue is to show that an increase of wages above their equilibrium level is going to produce unemployment, all that has to be shown is that this actually happens, not to show where it does not happen. This concern about the Seattle study is missing a key point of the economic analysis of minimum wages. The prediction is that jobs will be lost first among less efficient workers and less efficient employers, not equally across all workers and employers. More efficient employers may be able to absorb a larger share of the wage increase, to cut compensations, delay the lay-offs, etc. This is seen by the fact that demand is downward sloping and that a minimum wage above its equilibrium level “cuts” demand in two. Some employers are below the minimum wage (the less efficient ones) and others are above the minimum wage (the more efficient ones.) Let’s call the former “Uncle’s diner” and the latter “McDonald’s.” This how it is seen in a demand and supply graph:

minimum wage

Surely, there is some overlapping. But the point that this graph is making is that looking at the effects minimum wage above the red line is looking at the wrong place. A study that is looking for the effect on employment needs to be looking at what happens with below the red line. This sample, of course, has less information available than fast food chains such as McDonald’s; this is a reason why some studies focus on what can be seen even if the effect happens in what cannot be seen (and this is a value added of the Seattle study.)

This is why it is important to ask: “what do minimum wage advocates expect to find by increasing the sample size?” To question that minimum wages increase unemployment, then the critics also needs to focus on the “Uncle’s diner” part of the demand curve. If the objective is to inquire about something else, than that has no bearing on the fact that minimum wage increases do produce unemployment in the minimum wage market and at the less efficient (and harder to gather data) portion of it first.

PS: I have a previous post on minimum wages that can be found here.

The importance of understanding causal pathways: the case of affirmative action.

Let us put aside the question of whether affirmative action is a desirable goal. Instead I wish to ponder how to implement affirmative action, given that it will be implemented in some form regardless.

The logic of most affirmative action programs is that X vulnerable community’s outcomes (Y) are significantly below the average. For the sake of example let us say that X is Cherokees and Y is the number of professional baseball players from that ethno-racial group.

Y = f(X) 

A public policy analyst who simply noted the under representation of Cherokees in the MLB, without digging deeper into the causal pathway, may propose that quotas be implemented requiring teams to have a certain share of Cherokee players. Such a proposal would be a bad one. It would be bad because it could lead to privileged Cherokees gaining spots in the MLB at the expense of less privileged individuals from other ethno-racial groups.

A better public policy analysis would note that Cherokees are less likely to enter professional baseball because they are malnourished (Z). This analyst, recognizing the causal pathway, may instead propose a program be implemented to deal with malnourished individuals regardless of their ethno-racial identity.

Y = f(X); X = f(Z) 

Most affirmative action programs that I have come across are of the former type. They recognize that X ethno-racial group is performing poorly in Y outcome, and propose action without acknowledging Z. We need more programs that are designed with Z in mind.

I do not say any of this because I am an upper class white male who resents others receiving affirmative action. To the contrary. I have benefited from this type of affirmative action several times in my life. On paper I am a gold mine for a human resources worker looking to fulfill diversity quotas: I am a undocumented Hispanic of Black-Jewish descent who was raised in a low income household. I am not however vulnerable. I come from a low income household, but my Z is not low. Not really.

Despite my demographic group, I am not malnourished. I could stand to lose weight, but I am not unhealthy. I attended a state university, but my undergraduate education is comparable to that of someone who attended a public ivy. My intelligence is on the right side of the bell curve. Absent affirmative action I am confident I would achieve entry into the middle class.

Nor am I a rarity among beneficiaries. My observation is that many beneficiaries of affirmative action programs are not low on Z and left alone would achieve success on their own. Affirmative action programs are often constructed in such a way that someone low on Z could not navigate their application process. It may seem egalitarian to require applicants to submit course transcripts, to write essays, or present letters of recommendations. However these seemingly simple tasks require a level of Z that the truly under privileged do not have.

Good public policy analysis requires us to understand causal pathway of why X groups do not achieve success at similar rates as other groups. We must design programs that target undernourishment instead of simply targeting Cherokees. If we fail to do so we may have more Cherokees playing for the Dodgers, but will have failed to solve the deeper program.

Note that I say vulnerable as opposed to ‘minority’ in the above passage. This is to acknowledge that many so-called minority groups are nothing of the sort. Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians form majorities in various parts of southwest, south, and the pacific (e.g. Hawaii). Women likewise are not a minority, but are often covered by affirmative action programs. Jews are in many instances minorities, but in contemporary life are far from under represented in society’s top professions. This distinction may seem too obvious to be worth making, but it is not. Both sides of the political spectrum forget that the ultimate goal of affirmative action is to aid vulnerable individuals.  Double emphasize on individuals.

A Tax is Not a Price

Auto_stoped_highwayAccording 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.”

US Immigration: a Primer

President Trump was elected for a variety of reasons but any observant person knows that the general topic of immigration played a significant role. Mr Trump appears unfamiliar with the current American immigration system and he is ignorant of the economic benefits of immigration, or he downplays them. Below I address modest parts of both topics. I aim for sensationalism rather than for completeness.

First a little bit about the American immigration system such as it is in January 2017. There are two main bizarre ideas among Trump supporters about the real system: One regards who is allowed to come into this country (legally, I mean); the other strange misconception has to do with how aliens become US citizens.

The system by which the US admits immigrants is a little complicated and its description relies on a specialized legal jargon. In my considerable experience, few people have the patience to sit through a lecture on American immigration policy. So, let me cut to the chase:

THE NON-EXISTENT ORDERLY QUEUE

There is no way, zero way, the average married Mexican can legally immigrate into this country.

This is worth mentioning because many are under the impression that illegal immigrants are cheats who cut through the line instead of patiently waiting their turn.

The “average Mexican” does not have American-born children, children who are US citizens by birth. Mexicans who do have such children and the children are minors go to the head of the line. There is no (zero) line for those who don’t have close relatives who are Americans or legal immigrants. This example illustrates the US immigration policy that accounts for most legal immigrants in most years: Family re-unification.  

Sophisticated people noticed long ago that there is an instantaneous way to acquire an American relative. It’s to marry an American. Doing so for the purpose of gaining admission to the US is illegal for both parties involved. I don’t know if anyone ever goes to jail for it but it’s ground for immediate deportation. Nevertheless, I am told by some of my immigrant friends that there is a thriving little cottage industry of visa brides and grooms for a fee in some parts of the country. I cannot verify this rumor but I believe it.

Similarly, there is only one way the average married Irish man or woman may immigrate into this country: Winning a lottery. (You read this right: a lottery which one may play as often as one wishes; it has not entry fee.) In 2015, only about 49,000 people, all from Europe and Africa, gained admission on the basis of winning that lottery.

Some legal immigrants gain admission under the broad category of “employment related reasons.”  This category includes high-level programmers as well as farriers. (Look it up.) It’s a small number. In 2015 they made up about 15% of all one million-plus legal admissions. Our average Mexican and our average Irishman does not qualify here either.

You may have heard of an “investor’s visa” accorded to foreigners who will create employment in the US. That’s always a tiny number, about 10,000 in 2015.  It’s not always open. Congress decides about if every so often.

There is a third main, amorphous way by which foreigners are admitted, “asylum” broadly defined. I call it “amorphous” because the definition of who is a refugee or an asylum seeker can be changed by Congress in a very short time. The President decides how many can be admitted in either category. The number admitted under this category is accordingly highly variable. It was about 150,000 in 2015. It could have become 500,000 in 2016 because of a new crisis anywhere in the world. (It didn’t.) The current, Trump figure of  50,000 seems just about normal historically. Yet, there is wide variation about the average.

There is thus no orderly queue that Felipe or Ahmed could join on their own if they wanted to avoid becoming illegal aliens.

That’s it, folks. If you want to know more about the raw numbers, study the relevant pages in the Statistical Abstract of the US.

So, contrary to what I suspect is a widespread idea among conservatives, it is not the case that there is an orderly, wide-open legal way to immigrate into this country that illegal immigrants perversely ignore. Illegal immigrants are not rudely jumping to the head of the line; they come in through a side-door the US does not seem able to close.

One more thing, a programmatic idea: Instead of the present admission policies (plural)  based on viciously absurd selection we have, we could take a page from the Australian and from the Canadian playbooks. That is, we could coolly decide what kind of immigrants we want and try and tailor a door to those precise dimensions. Presently, we are doing very little of this, however unbelievable it may sound. Such a rational procedure would not not need to eliminate refugee and asylum seekers admissions.

I am personally in favor of such a reform . I also think special policies  should apply  to our proximate neighbors to the north and to the south. I developed this idea with Sergey Nikiforov in an article [pdf] published in the Independent Review several years ago.

Incidentally, I am a product of a rational immigration policy myself. I was admitted on merit alone. I rest my case! Thank you for asking. OK, truth be told, I tried to come in as a spouse of an American citizen but she dumped me.

GAINING CITIZENSHIP

On to the next misconstrued idea. I keep hearing (on talk radio, I confess) irate citizens affirming that foreigners who don’t want to take American citizenship should not be admitted. The case hardly arises.

In fact, in reality, to be allowed to become a US citizen, to take American citizenship, requires several years of residence in this country after being legally admitted. (See above.)

Hence, personal preference plays little role in determining which immigrant does not become a US citizen. I don’t have the numbers but I am sure that, as a rule, the vast majority of legal immigrants adopt American citizenship shortly after they are legally empowered to do so. It is true that, in theory, some hesitation or some problems may arise in connection with some countries of origin who do not wish to recognize dual citizenship. In practice, depriving anyone of his passport is low on the list of priorities of most countries from which new US citizens originate. (India may be an exception – a curious exception – as if the country were facing an unbearable burden of immigrants of all sorts.)

The consequence of this scenario is that, contrary to what I think is a widespread notion, there is no horde of legal immigrants living in this country and peevishly and disloyally refusing to take American citizenship. It also follows that there is no mass of illegal immigrants who obstinately refuse American citizenship. It’s not available to them, period.

I think it’s legitimate to be opposed to illegal immigration and even to legal immigration but it’s best to do on the basis of correct information.

Public Support for OReGO: Preliminary Results

tldr version;

Road pricing can be a useful means of addressing infrastructure fiscal issues, reducing congestion, and improving environmental quality and it has a chance of being implemented if advocates focus on mobilizing urban voters.

Thanks to all respondents.


This post is a quick detour from the NoL Foreign Policy Survey posts.

Among other projects I am working on, I am tinkering with a public opinion project aimed at the OReGO project. The OReGO is a pilot program operated by the State of Oregon to experiment with an alternative to the existing gasoline tax. Currently Oregonians pay 30 cents per gallon of gasoline, on top of the federal 18.4 cent per gallon tax. Volunteer participants of OReGO instead pay a charge of 1.5 cents per mile driven on state roads.

orego

The primary goal of the program is to find a better way to fund the state’s infrastructure. The current system is inadequate because automobiles are becoming increasingly more fuel efficient and so, on a per mile basis, pay less for road use. Despite paying less these automobiles still rack up costs in road damage.

Advocates of OReGO, and other road pricing schemes, also hope that the program will serve as a means of combating congestion by making drivers more conscious of the marginal cost of their driving and encouraging them to avoid excess driving. The gasoline tax does this already, but very crudely in comparison.

Some advocates also hope to use road pricing as a means of improving local environmental quality and addressing climate change. Automobiles are a significant source of pollution and so reducing their use would yield environmental benefits. Even if the program kept the same number of cars on the road it could reap benefits if it reduced stop and go traffic; automobiles pollute more in stop and go traffic than free flow.

There is quite a bit of research from economists and urban planners on the issue, but public opinion research on it is relatively rare. What research exists tends to focus on either toll roads or in foreign regions. The reason for the gap in the literature is simple enough to explain – no jurisdiction in the United States has adopted road pricing. There have been a few small scale experiments, but they were largely engineering tests and surveyed only the opinion of participants. I hope to fill this gap in the literature by (eventually) conducting a large scale public opinion study of Oregonians.

The below pilot study had 220 respondents recruited through various Oregon sub-reddits (e.g. Portland, Eugene, and Salem). Respondents were obviously not representative of Oregon at large. The sample size was also small for an academic study of Oregon and there is a lot of noise. Most of the results presented are statistically insignificant. As a convenience sample though this survey was nonetheless useful. My goal in this survey was more about testing the survey before fielding it more broadly.

I thank all respondents to the survey – you’ve all helped the progress of science.

Survey Experiment Results:

The survey had a survey experiment. The purpose of survey experiments is to see how changes in phrasing, or other survey elements, influences response.

The experiment was in how OReGO was presented. Respondents were split into three sub-groups and received slightly different explanations of the program. In the base scenario they were told the program was simply a funding mechanism. In the congestion scenario they were also told about its possible congestion benefits. In the final they were additionally told about its possible environmental benefits.

OReGo is a pilot program currently being operated by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Participating drivers are being given the opportunity to pay 1.5 cents per mile they drive on public roads instead of the current 30 cent per gallon tax that the state of Oregon currently charges.

Advocates of OReGO, and similar road pricing schemes, argue that the program serves as a more dependable means of funding infrastructure than the current gasoline tax. They point out that as vehicles become more fuel efficient the amount that drivers pay per mile is decreasing, but costs associated due to road damage are not similarly decreasing. This means that in the long term the current gasoline tax will be unable to cover infrastructure costs. (/End of Base Scenario)

Advocates of OReGO also point out that the program can help reduce congestion by discouraging excessive driving and encourage the use of alternative means of transportation such as bicycling, walking, or transit. Although drivers currently pay for their automobile use in the form of the gasoline tax, many view it as a fixed payment. OReGO, which is charged on a per mile basis, may serve to make drivers more conscious of the marginal cost of their driving. (/End of Congestion Scenario)

OReGO could lead not only to reduced congestion, but could also serve to improve local air quality. One of the major sources of air pollution is automobiles, especially in stop and go traffic. (/End of Environmental Scenario)

Looking at support for adopting OReGO within five years the different treatments are little different from one another. The congestion treatment received a decline in support, but it is pushed back up in the environmental treatment.

I regret not adding a fourth group where respondents are told about the base option and the environmental benefits, but congestion is not added. As it is, it is hard to tell if the decline in support for OReGO in the congestion treatment is because people don’t care about ways to address congestion, or they dislike attempts at social engineering.

favororegobytreatment

When we look at treatment effects among only those who identified living in an urban area the effects get more interesting. Urban voters were very responsive to the idea of environmental benefits and increased support for OReGO by over 10 percentage points.

FavorOregobyTreatmentUrban.png

 

favororegobyurban

What seems to be driving the difference in support for OReGO is inter-regional differences in perceived local air quality. Those who perceive local air quality to be ‘very good’ are least likely to support OReGO. This finding is exaggerated when looking at only urban respondents.

I played around to see if this was a statistical artifact from the above treatment; i.e. it is possible those who lived in ‘very good’ air quality regions received the ‘environmental treatment’  and I am picking up the latter effect. This was not the case.

favororegobylocalair

favororegobylocalairurban

Is this a simple case of those living in high quality areas having no interest in improving the region? A “I have mines” attitude. No. When I look at support for OReGO by how respondents judged local air quality had changed in the past five years, those who thought their local air quality was improving also had the highest support for OReGO.

There is a definite relationship here between support for OReGO and perception of one’s local air quality. I can’t put my finger on it just yet.

favororegobychangeairurban

Bonus result: daily bicyclists are those most supportive of OReGO.

favororegobybikefreq

On quasi-rents and the minimum wage

Ryan Murphy of Southern Methodist University has a new article published in Economics Bulletin regarding the minimum wage and “quasi-rents”.  The argument made by Ryan has the advantage of theoretically fleshing out a point made by many skeptics of the new literature. Generally, the argument has been that in the short-term, the minimum wage may have minimal effects, but in the long-term, firms will adjust.

I tended, until Ryan’s article, to be more or less skeptic of the value of this counter-argument. My point has always been that the new literature (like the Dube-Lester-Reich paper) tends to act as a partial equilibrium story (focusing only on one sector only or one indicator). My view has always been very “Coasian” in the sense that there are transaction costs to adapting to any new minimum wage rate.

The height of the hike and what industries are primarily affected will determine the method of adjustments. Firms can cut on benefits, substitute between forms of labor (the minimum wage increases the supply of older workers which remplace younger inexperienced workers), hours or training. They can also, depending on the elasticity of demand for their products, increase prices or cut quality. They can also cut employment. All of these are channels of adjustment and they will be used differently depending on the context. They are all different expressions of the fact that the demand curve slopes downward. But each expression has costs to be used that are to be weighted against their benefits – which are highly circumstantial. For example, if I have a firm of two employees, I will not sacrifice half my workforce by firing a worker (thus sacrificing 50% of my output) for a 5% hike in the minimum wage. Not only would this be an over-reaction, but there are transaction costs for me to fire that worker : separation fees, emotional pain, learning what the employee was doing etc. Reducing his hours would be a safer adjustment.

Until there is a study that measures all of these adjustments channels at once, I am skeptical.

So where does Ryan’s story come in? Well, none of my arguments had a long-term component. They were largely void of any time dimension. While I am aware of research like those of Meer and WestClemens and Wither and Clemens regarding job growth patterns following minimum wage hikes, I always discounted that argument. I was always reluctant to engage in long-term reasoning because I felt it was conceding a point that ought not to be conceded even if that counter-point is valid.  I only used it to top up the rest of my argument. But Ryan introduced to me the concept of quasi-rents, of which I had vaguely heard during my undergraduate microeconomics class.

Basically, here is the argument about quasi-rents: in the short-term, there are rents to be extracted from fixed factors of productions. Firms need these quasi-rents to remain in business, but only in the long-run.  However, if labor can find a way to capture the rents in the short-run, they will get higher earnings and employers will not fire people as much. As a result, there is basically a reshuffling of the consumer surplus. However, in the long-run, nothing is fixed and firm owners can adjust by shifting to different production methods. Thus, they will reduce their future hirings. In Ryan’s words:

But the on-impact negative effects of minimum wages may be hidden. In the longer run, after the quasi-rent is dissipated, the owner would have the incentive to eventually switch from more labor-intensive methods to ones that are less globally efficient (this being the conventional “demand slopes down” result). More perniciously, the threat of future increases in the minimum wage may create regime uncertainty undermining a willingness to invest in the types of technology and capital complementary to low skilled labor, thereby reducing employment for low skilled workers. That is to say, the risk of the appropriation of quasi-rents can shift investment towards capital unlikely to be appropriated via the minimum wage. Repeated and arbitrary increases in the minimum wage worsen this risk. This is consistent with the recent shift towards long run effects of increases in the minimum wage, for instance Meer and West (2016).

This is exactly what Andrew Seltzer found for the introduction of the minimum wage during the Great Depression in certain American industries. In the short-term, the capital was more or less fixed and production methods could not be abandonned easily. In the long run, firms adapted and shifted production methods. This is why Ryan’s argument is convincing. It offers a theoretical explanation for the empirical results observed by Dube, Lester and Reich or Card and Krueger. It fits well with theories of imperfect markets (damn I hate that word that is basically saying that all markets have frictions) like those of Alan Manning (see his Monopsony in Motion here).

This is the kind of work on the minimum wage that, if measured, should force considerable requestionning on the part of minimum wage hike advocates.