Culture and Institutions

Bryan Caplan writes,

Simple economics implies that government enterprises should be far worse than they really are.

I am reading (admittedly a bit late to the party) Peter T. Leeson’s collection of essays on anarchy. In at least one of the essays, he takes the view that the cultural margin is more important than the institutional margin. That is, he seems to be saying that there are no societies in which anarchy will work well but government would work poorly, or vice-versa. Instead, on the one hand there are well-developed cultures, which could have good government or good anarchy, while on the other hand there are poorly-developed cultures, which could have only bad government or bad anarchy.

I have referred often to the debate about the relative primacy of culture and institutions. I tend to side with the culturalists. The classic institutionalist counter-example is Korea. I think that it is reasonable to suggest that North Korea would be much improved under anarchy. But in general, I think that Leeson’s view, which I take to be one of cultural primacy, holds.

Health Care Innovation

I review the book by Jonathan Bush and Stephen Baker. An excerpt:

Bush argues that for most medical services, flagship research hospitals are high-cost providers. He believes that in a rational marketplace, the leading hospitals would have to specialize in particular areas of expertise. A hospital with unique skills at treating a certain type of cancer might attract patients from all over the United States with that cancer. However, it would not treat local patients for ailments that are more common and more easily treated. Instead, those cases would be handled by smaller community hospitals or clinics.

Hookernomics

Subtitled The Business of Sex, it is a recent book, which the author encouraged me to review. He profiles the contemporary prostitution industry and offers his views on the best policy for dealing with it. One of his suggestions is for a walled-garden approach, in which there are some areas where prostitution is at least de facto legal while there are other areas where laws against prostitution are enforced.

He offers some simple theoretical hypotheses, e.g. that better birth control technology shifts the supply curve to the right and that desirable mates will prefer marriage to prostitution, so that the median prostitute will not be a desirable mate. He offers some back-of-the-envelope estimates of various sorts of prostitution activity. Although the estimates are not based on any formal research by the author, they seem to offer useful, reasonable bounds on the true numbers.

I read the book on part of a plane ride, and I found it breezy and worth my time. However, the content is heavily weighted toward the author’s opinions, which I often found unpersuasive. The passage that stuck with me the most was this:

The obvious thing is that both prostitutes and their customers are notorious liars. Prostitutes are paid to lie. Their job is to flatter the customer and play any role he wants them to play…On one level it’s all about showbiz, and, in that context, there is nothing wrong with it.

I find myself reacting mostly to the “notorious liars” phrase, which is a complete turn-off for me. It probably explains why I do not share the author’s positive outlook on prostitution. The “showbiz” phrase suggests that one could be entertained by it, just as one can be entertained by going to a play or movie where you know that people are just acting. But when you go to a play you remain separate from what takes place on stage. When I interact with other people, I have a strong preference for authenticity.

Related: Scott Sumner discusses the daughter test, and the author takes the position that he would be ok with it. I would not.

Schucks

David Henderson’s take

Schuck explicitly defends public choice from its critics, writing, “[P]ublic choice theory’s rational actor model explains and predicts far more observed official behavior than its main rival, public interest theory.” He then lays out how well public choice predicts the destructiveness of many government programs–programs that are destructive precisely because of the many perverse incentives that motivate politicians, bureaucrats, special interests, and voters. Schuck gives many historical and contemporary examples of government programs that cause large inefficiencies, including unemployment insurance (creates the incentive to stay unemployed); disability insurance (creates the incentive to claim disability and quit work); and the Dodd-Frank Act (creates moral hazard by broadening the government’s safety net for risk takers).

My take:

Schuck has an impressive grasp of neoclassical economics, but I think he gives it too much weight. Neoclassical economics is obsessed with the concept of equilibrium, and in turn it pays little attention to innovation. I believe that one of the biggest lessons of economics is the value of trial-and-error learning through entrepreneurial activity.

Incidentally, that is one of the important ideas that is, for all practical purposes, outside mainstream economics. The process of innovation has three steps: introducing experiments, learning from experiments, and evolving as a result of those experiments. The government is particularly inferior to the market when it comes to both experimentation and evolution. The government does not have the ability — or the will — to attempt as many experiments as private actors do. In the marketplace, when one organization won’t explore alternatives, another one often will.

Yuval Levin calls this the three-E’s model–experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

What I’m Reading

Where Does it Hurt?, by Jonathan Bush and Stephen Baker. Bush is W’s cousin, and I imagine there are many people who will not be able to read it because of their attitude about the family. Here is one quote that I liked:

I reached the conclusion not long ago that anger, either white hot or smoldering, is a fundamental fuel for entrepreneurs. They don’t have to be angry all of the time, of course; that would be no fun for anyone. But it helps if deep down they nurse some wound, grievance, or perhaps a sense of injustice.

I was very bitter in April of 1994 when I left Freddie Mac to start my Internet business. I had been shoved aside in a project that I had struggled to start at Freddie, and I was treated in a humiliating way. I called a staff meeting, and no one showed up. One of the staff members then explained that she had been named as my replacement.

I was motivated to do some things I would not have done ordinarily, including going out of my way to meet new people and to do sales, in part because I thought of succeeding in the business as a way of “getting back” at the people who I thought wronged me at Freddie.

Anyway, I have not read enough of the book to form an overall opinion.

The Case for Skepticism

About a book by sociologist Duncan Watts, I write,

Watts’ book can be regarded as an extended argument in favor of what I might term Epistemological Skepticism about Social Phenomena, or ESSP. Those of us with ESSP believe that we should be skeptical about how much we can know with certainty in the fields known as the social sciences. We may learn things that are true for a majority of cases under specific circumstances. But we are less likely to find perfectly reliable, broadly applicable laws comparable to those found by physicists.

In Our Hands

Charles Murray’s book of that title is almost ten years old. It is relevant to the idea of a universal benefit.

For a universal benefit, I propose something like $6000 for each adult in a household and $4000 for each child. Murray proposed $10,000 per adult and zero per child.

Murray described the program as a cash grant. I describe it as flex-dollars that can only be used for “merit” goods, meaning health care, food, housing, and education.

Each of us presumes that people will purchase health insurance. I am explicit that catastrophic health insurance would be mandatory.

I propose something like a 20 percent marginal tax rate, or phase-out rate, for the universal benefit. Murray proposed a 20 percent marginal tax rate for incomes between $25,000 and $50,000, with a zero marginal tax rate otherwise. (This is a tax rate that specifically reduces the benefit, and it is over and above existing income and payroll taxes.)

So a single adult with zero income would get $10,000 under Murray’s plan, $6000 under mine. At $25,000 income, you still get $10,000 under Murray’s plan, only $1000 under mine. At $50,000 and up you get $5000 under Murray’s plan, but at $30,000 and up you get zero under mine.

A household with two adults, two children, and zero income gets $20,000 under either plan. If each adult earns $25,000, then the household gets $20,000 under Murray’s plan (because it looks at individual income, not household income) and $10,000 under mine. If each adult earns $50,000 (and up), the household still gets $10,000 under Murray’s plan. If each adult earns $50,000, the household gets $0 under my plan.

With a universal benefit, I have suggested replacing the EITC, food stamps, housing subsidies, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid with a single benefit. Actually, think of Medicaid as two programs–one for nursing homes, the other for health care. I would leave the nursing-home piece alone.

What Murray proposed in addition was to replace all of Medicaid, as well as all of Medicare and Social Security. That means that some of the benefit would have to go toward self-financing health care when you get old and self-financing some of your retirement (instead of Social Security, an adult over 65 would continue to receive Murray’s $10,000, but not my flexible benefit). Since the average person will incur about $100,000 in medical expenses after age 65, self-financing would require about $2000 a year to be saved, because it is hard to earn a return above the rate of health care cost growth. I would say that, conservatively, someone would want to save an additional $1000 per year to fund additional consumption after retirement.

After applying phase-out rates (what I am calling the marginal tax rate) and deducting the cost of self-financing medical care and additional consumption in retirement under Murray’s plan, this is how the two ideas compare:

Type of Household Income per adult Murray benefit My benefit
Single Adult $0 $7000 $6000
Single Adult $25,000 $7000 $1000
Single Adult $50,000 $5000 $0
Two Adults, Two Kids $0 $14,000 $20,000
Two Adults, Two Kids $25,000 $14,000 $10,000
Two Adults, Two Kids $50,000 $4,000 $0

Some remarks:

1. Suppose that catastrophic health insurance costs $1500 per adult and $500 per child. In that case, Murray would leave a household of four with zero income with just $10,000 per year to spend on food, housing, non-catastrophic health expenses, and everything else.

2. Murray’s plan is more generous to all but the very poor who have children. He wants people to bear the full financial burden of having children, and if that burden feels particularly heavy for the poor, this has the virtue of giving them an incentive to avoid having children.

3. Murray’s plan has a lower marginal tax rate (zero) for those earning $25,000 a year or less. The upside of this is that it really strengthens the incentive to work. The downside is that it raises the budgetary cost considerably.

4. Murray’s plan reverts to a zero marginal tax rate for those earning $50,000 or more. As far as I can tell, the main reason he wants to do this is that he thinks the additional $5000 will encourage high-income mothers to stay home with their children. I do not find this particularly persuasive, and I think you want a much stronger argument given how much this raises the cost of the plan.

5. The 18-21-year-old gets nothing in Murray’s plan. He clearly says he wants to get rid of college subsidies, so it seems to me that he wants to drop these folks into the labor pool in the expectation that they will learn to swim.

6. Keep in mind that under current policy, many low-income households face effective marginal tax rates of 100 percent or higher. That is, they are better off with something less than full-time, year-round work. That disturbs Murray and it disturbs me. It is possibly a source of a large share of social pathology.

Rognlie > Piketty

Matt Rognlie writes,

[If house values continue to rise], Piketty (2014) will be right about the rise of capital in the twenty-first century. But the mechanism is quite distinct from the one proposed by Piketty (2014) (a better title would be Housing in the Twenty-First Century), and it has radically different policy implications. For instance, the literature studying markets with high housing costs finds that these costs are driven in large part by artificial
scarcity through land use regulation—see Glaeser, Gyourko and Saks (2005) and Quigley and Raphael (2005). A natural first step to combat the increasing role of housing wealth would be to reexamine these regulations and expand the housing supply.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen, who writes

Piketty’s mechanism of accumulation, as laid out in his book, is simply the wrong mechanism for understanding growing inequality, both theoretically and empirically.

That would appear to be the correct post-mortem on Piketty.

Larry Summers on Mian and Sufi

He writes,

They argue that, rather than failing banks, the key culprits in the financial crisis were overly indebted households. Resurrecting arguments that go back at least to Irving Fisher and that were emphasised by Richard Koo in considering Japan’s stagnation, Mian and Sufi highlight how harsh leverage and debt can be – for example, when the price of a house purchased with a 10 per cent downpayment goes down by 10 per cent, all of the owner’s equity is lost. They demonstrate powerfully that spending fell much more in parts of the country where house prices fell fastest and where the most mortgage debt was attached to homes. So their story of the crisis blames excessive mortgage lending, which first inflated bubbles in the housing market and then left households with unmanageable debt burdens. These burdens in turn led to spending reductions and created an adverse economic and financial spiral that ultimately led financial institutions to the brink.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Summers points out that Mian and Sufi’s suggestion that we should have bailed out homeowners is probably not correct. I feel even more strongly than Summers does about this.

Suppose that we accept the balance-sheet recession story. Some comments and questions.

1. Vernon Smith is also a proponent.

2. What was the difference between the damage to consumer wealth caused by the dotcom crash of 2000 and by the housing crash of 2007-2008? Was it solely the fact that the latter had been financed more by borrowing?

3. Suppose that there had been no debt-fueled consumer boom in 2005-2006. What would there have been instead? A sluggish economy? A more sustainable boom?

4. Suppose that we take a PSST perspective. Then the period from the late 1990s to the present is one long, painful, still-unfinished adjustment to the Internet and factor-price equalization. We happened to have a sharp boom-bust cycle in home construction in the middle of it, but even during the boom we did not have four consecutive months of gains in employment over 200,000. Then, in 2008 we had a panic about large financial institutions, leading to a big increase in government intervention, which mostly consisted of transfers of resources to less-productive businesses, such as GM, Citigroup, and Solyndra.