Life Expectancy and Income

Timothy Taylor writes,

the reasons for this growing gap in life expectancy by income are not altogether clear. Some explanations clearly aren’t supported by facts. For example, although overall levels of tobacco use are down, the decline seems to have happened in much the same way across income levels, and thus can’t explain the life expectancy factors. Obesity levels are up over time, but they seem to be up more among those with higher incomes, so that pattern doesn’t explain a growing gap in life expectancy by income, either. One hypothesis recognizes that there is a correlation between education and health, and also between education and income, so perhaps factors related to education and health have become more important over time. For example, perhaps those with higher incomes are better at managing chronic diseases like high blood pressure or diabetes. But again, this is an open question. Other possible explanations are looking at how the nature of jobs and job stress may have changed over time for jobs of different income levels, or whether greater inequality in a society may create stresses that affect health.

Before you comment, note carefully the methods used to assess life expectancy.

My own view is that the distribution of conscientiousness has become more unequal over time, and this has implications for both income and life expectancy.

For a view the conscientiousness is the endogenous variable (rather than exogenous, as I think of it), see Elliot Berkman. Pointer from Mark Thoma. He has another post on a piece saying that educational inequality has widened. Again, I have the same diagnosis–that the distribution of ability has widened.

How Bad was 2008?

Timothy Taylor writes,

my point here is not to parse the details of economic policy over the last seven years. Instead, it is to say that I agree with Furman (and many others) on a fundamental point: The US and the world economy was in some danger of a true meltdown in September 2008. Here are a few of the figures I used to make this point in lectures, some of which overlap with Furman’s figures. The underlying purpose of these kinds of figures is to show the enormous size and abruptness of the events of 2008 and early 2009–and in that way to make a prima facie case that the US economy was in severe danger at that time.

Taylor highlights the fall in house prices, the drop in bank lending, and the rise in the TED spread. However, if you look at just these indicators, the crisis ended relatively quickly. But employment just kept dropping (long after the official end of the recession). So it looks to me like the policies had a neutron bomb effect. The buildings (banks) were left standing but the people (workers) died.

As Taylor says, these are points that are not going to be settled. In my terminology, there are many frameworks that can be made consistent with observed economic performance. Some of these frameworks will be consistent with policies having made a positive difference, and others will not.

David Colander on the Economics Profession

Timothy Taylor points to an interesting series of essays by Colander. Self-recommending*. I was drawn to the one on Harvard-MIT incest.

What I’m saying is that modern mainstream economists seem to lack the all-round wisdom reflective of the great policy integrators of the past, such as Bob Solow, Charlie Kindleberger, Charles Goodhart, Paul Samuelson, Art Okun, Jim Tobin, Herb Stein, and Paul Streeten, to name just a few.

I agree that there is a generation gap. More recent generations take their own work much too seriously. I think that economists offer interpretations of reality, and alternative interpretations often have as much validity. I think that the older economists understood this, even if they did not explicitly articulate it. Subsequent generations lost this wisdom.

He goes on,

Modern mainstream economics is a bit off as a result of too much inbreeding. Specifically, my argument is that the gene pool of economists in the replicator dynamics of the profession is too small to prevent undesirable recessive traits from showing up in mainstream economists from time to time.

Recall that I describe Stan Fischer as the Genghis Khan of macroeconomics, because essentially every macroeconomist is descended from him.

*self-recommending is a Tyler Cowen term, which I recall he defined as a project that by virtue of the topic and author is likely to be worth reading.

A Robot Cambrian Explosion?

The Journal of Economic Perspectives, which Timothy Taylor has been editing since its inception, has a symposium on robotics. One of the articles is by Gill A. Pratt.

The exponential growth in computing and storage performance has led researchers to explore memory-based methods of solving the perception, planning, and control problems relevant to the development of additional degrees of robot autonomy. Instead of decomposing these tasks into a set of hand-coded algorithms customized for particular circumstances, large numbers of memories of prior experiences can be searched, and a solution based on matching prior experience is used to guide response.

… human beings communicate externally with one another relatively slowly, at rates on the order of 10 bits per second. Robots, and computers in general, can communicate at rates over one gigabit per second—or roughly 100 million times faster. Based on this tremendous difference in external communication speeds, a combination of wireless and Internet communication can be exploited to share what is learned by every robot with all robots. Human beings take decades to learn enough to add meaningfully to the compendium of common knowledge. However, robots not only stand on the shoulders of each other’s learning, but can start adding to the compendium of robot knowledge almost immediately after their creation.

He does not predict when it will occur, but he thinks that at some point these sorts of capabilities will result in a rapid increase in robot intelligence.

Timothy Taylor on Nudging and Public Choice

He writes,

think about elected officials and regulators in the spirit of behavioral economics: they often lack self-control; have a difficult time evaluating complex situations; tend to stick with rules-of-thumb and default options rather than accept the cognitive and organizational costs of re-evaluating their positions; do not evaluate costs and benefits in a consistent way across different contexts; are not good at evaluating risks accurately, instead often respond to limited information and hype; and are overly averse to the risk of taking responsibility for decisions that might turn out poorly. This perspective must have widespread implications for decisions involving the complexities of the tax code or government budgets, policies affecting the workforce and the environment, openness to new sources of domestic and foreign competition, and foreign policy as well.

He is riffing off a paper by W. Kip Viscusi and Ted Gayer.

Timothy Taylor on Coal’s Resurgence

He cites in particular a paper by Jan Christoph Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob. Of all of the factors affecting carbon dioxide emissions, the most important is probably the increase in the carbon intensity of energy use in Asia and in developing countries, fueled (so to speak) by coal. Taylor notes that simply going for a global crackdown on coal use would punish countries that are well behind the U.S. and other developed countries in terms of wealth. He concludes,

if you aren’t a big supporter of near-term, large-scale, non-coal methods of producing electricity around the world, you aren’t really serious about reducing global carbon emissions.

Is Futile Care the Issue in Health Costs?

Timothy Taylor writes,

The gains from reducing costs of end-of-life care shouldn’t be overstated. The proportion of Medicare spending that goes to end-of-life care has been roughly the same for the last few decades at about 25%. This regularity suggests that while overall health care costs have been rising, end-of-life care is not an increasing part of that overall issue. Intriguingly, Aldridge and Kelley report: “Medicare expenditures in the last year of life decrease with age, especially for those aged 85 or older … This is in large part because the intensity of medical care in the last year of life decreases with increasing age.” Indeed, older adults as a group are a minority of those with the highest health care costs in any given year

Read the whole thing. His Aldridge-Kelly citation is to a report of the sort that only Tim Taylor seems to dig up.

Bengt Holmstrom Re-discovers a Theory of Debt Contracts

He writes,

The purpose of money markets is to provide liquidity for individuals and firms. The cheapest way to do so is by using over-collateralised debt that obviates the need for price discovery. Without the need for price discovery the need for public transparency is much less. Opacity is a natural feature of money markets and can in some instances enhance liquidity, as I will argue later.

Pointer from Timothy Taylor. The theory that debt is used when the underlying assets are opaque is not quite new. My articulation of it owes a bit to the delegated monitoring idea of Doug Diamond.

The natural error for economists to make is to assume that bank creditors “see through” the bank to the underlying assets. What Diamond got me thinking is that the whole point of a debt contract is to ensure that the creditor does not have to see through the bank unless the bank gets into trouble. That is the insight that Holmstrom is re-discovering.

The EITC in Practice

Timothy Taylor writes,

The EITC adds a lot of complexity to the tax forms of the working poor, who are often not well-positioned to cope with that complexity, nor to hire someone else to cope with it. About 20% of EITC payments go to those who don’t actually qualify, which seems to happen because low-income people hand over their tax forms to paid tax preparers who try to get them signed up. Of course, there’s another group, not well-measured as far as I know, of working-poor households who would be eligible for the EITC but don’t know how to sign up for it.

One of the advantages of a universal benefit is that you give the money to everyone. My idea is that you would then tax some of it back at a marginal rate of 20 or 25 percent. That is, for every dollar that someone earns in the market, they are lose 20 cents or 25 cents in universal benefits. Compared to a marginal tax rate of zero, 25 percent is more complex and has a disincentive. But it is much less complex and de-motivating than our current system of sharp cut-off points for benefits like food stamps and housing assistance. And having a non-zero tax rate allows you to have a higher basic benefit at lower overall budget cost.

Taming the Financial Sector

Luigi Zingales writes,

there is precious little evidence that shows the positive role of other forms of financial development, particularly important in the United States: equity market, junk bond market, option and future markets, interest rate swaps, etc.

Found by Timothy Taylor.

Many financial practices are designed to evade regulations or optimize with respect to them. If regulators had not been so laggard in removing the interest rate ceilings on bank deposits, we might never have seen money market funds. If interstate banking had not been so restricted in the 1960s and 1970s, then there would have been no need for a mortgage securities market. If there were fewer short-sale restrictions and looser margin requirements in the stock market, then futures and options in the stock market might not have been created. My guess is that if you were to examine why firms use junk bonds rather than equity finance, you would find a regulatory story there as well.

Back in the early 1990s, someone coined the expression, “The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” Financial markets attempt to do the same with regulation.