Tax the Big Non-profits?

From the WSJ.

A recent budget plan by Republican Gov. Paul LePage calling for an overhaul of individual, corporate and sales taxes also would make Maine the first state in the nation to require colleges, hospitals and other large charities to go on the property-tax rolls in their municipalities.

I think this is a good idea. What is happening is that these New Commanding Heights enterprises are taking over the nation’s largest cities. That reflects in part the tax distortion.

If you have never encountered my skeptical take on non-profits, you should read this. Even if you are already familiar with my views, it’s an essay worth re-reading.

What I am Reading

1. Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc. I am only a few pages in, and he already has cited Bill Dickens and Bryan Caplan, among others.

2. Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus, Engineering the Financial Crisis. This is a re-read for me. They share with me the view that risk-based capital rules contributed heavily to the crisis. They make a very subtle point, though. They do not believe that bankers went all-out to maximize the effective leverage of their banks. Thus, the authors reject the moral hazard arguments of deposit insurance and too-big-to-fail.

The way I would put their argument is this. Suppose that bank managers were, for whatever reason, actually quite concerned about risk exposure. They thought, even if incorrectly, that the value of keeping their franchises intact and avoiding trouble was very important. Even so, with the risk weights that regulators placed on different assets, the effective rate of return on mortgage securities was much higher than that on other asset classes, including low-risk mortgage loans. Thus, the risk-based capital rules, along with the lenient ratings by rating agencies of mortgage securities, served to steer capital into high-risk mortgage loans and thereby into feeding the housing bubble.

In making their argument that the crisis was in my terminology a cognitive failure rather than a moral failure, the authors point out that if bankers had merely wanted to maximize their exploitation of implicit and explicit guarantees, they could have acted differently. They could have held higher-risk, higher-return tranches of mortgage securities. They could have held less capital (before the crisis, major banks tended to have leverage ratios well below regulatory limits).

Apparently, Gregory Clark is Not Most Economists

Gillian B. White writes,

According to the Fed study, about 60 percent of black children whose parents had income that fell into the top 50 percent of the distribution saw their own income fall into the bottom half during adulthood. This type of downward slide was common for only 36 percent of white children.

…Still, most economists lack a clear, definitive explanation for why, after reaching the middle class, many black American families quickly lose that status as their children fall behind.

Pointer from Mark Thoma.

Obviously, she did not read my review of Gregory Clark’s latest book.

Clark suggests that this may reflect that the underlying mean for these ethnic groups may differ, and the higher propensity of middle-income blacks and Hispanics to have their children’s income fall to the bottom third might be due to regression toward a lower mean.

Suppose that you have two populations of men with different height-producing genetic characteristics. The mean height in group A is 5 feet, 9 inches, and the mean height in group B is 5 feet, 7 inches. There is substantial variation within each group.

Now, out of the current generation of men, you select men from each group who happen to be 5 feet, 8 inches. Track the height of their sons. It seems reasonable to predict that, starting with men who are 5 feet 8 inches, the sons of men from group A are likely to be taller than the sons of men from group B. This does not result from social prejudice against men from group B. It is the result of laws of probability.

Pete Boettke on Ideology and Economics

He writes,

Market fundamentalism is far from the mainstream of economic thought. The mainstream folks consider their work non-ideological and merely technical because they all share the same tacit presuppositions of political economy. It would be healthy if they looked through a different window, and spent some time reading those Nobel economists I mentioned above, or the Nobel worthy economists I mentioned as well.

Read the whole thing. I had a hard time choosing an excerpt. It also could use more fleshing out, in my view.

What Boettke is wrestling with is an asymmetry between mainstream economics and those of us with a free market bent.

Here is how I would describe the asymmetry. I think that the free-market types understand the main arguments of mainstream economists, but I think that mainstream economists only seem to deal with a straw-man version of free-market economics. Keep in mind, however, the Law of Asymmetric Insight: when two people disagree, each one tends to think that he understands his opponent better than the opponent understands himself.

I think that we on the free-market side understand behavioral economics. We understand asymmetric information. We understand market failure. Thus, we differ from the straw-man version of us that mainstream economists dismiss.

On the other hand, mainstream economists appear to me not to appreciate the two most important arguments that we have. One is the socialist calculation argument. My sense is that mainstream economists either do not believe that the socialist calculation problem is real, or they believe that it only applies to socialist dictatorships. In fact, any government program to spend, tax, or regulate will encounter the socialist calculation problem. That is, government planners face a fundamental information problem themselves. Knowledge is dispersed. What planners do not know is important, and indeed it can be more important than what they claim to know about market failure.

The second argument is the public choice argument. This is often over-simplified as “government officials act based on self-interest.” The deeper issue, which Boettke mentions in his post, is that markets and government should be looked at in parallel as institutions. The market process has certain strengths and weaknesses. Government has other strengths and weaknesses. The mainstream approach simply assumes away all weaknesses of the political process. Once an economist identifies a market failure and a policy to treat it, the next step if to play fantasy despot and recommend the policy.

Finally, I have to say that this is not mere abstract philosophy. The socialist calculation problem is real. It affects financial regulators, who in the period leading up to the financial crisis used crude “risk buckets” to alter the incentives of banks. That approach was woefully information-poor, and it created huge incentives for banks to do exactly what they did with risky mortgages. See Not What They Had in Mind. The socialist calculation problem affects every agency of the government, from the FCC to the FDA to the panel of experts who is supposed to determine which medical procedures to allow.

The institutional weaknesses of government are real. Read Peter Schuck’s book. You can get the flavor of it from his talk and my comments.

Now is a Great Time to Subsidize the Housing Market!

From the WaPo.

The White House announced Wednesday that the Federal Housing Administration will significantly lower the fees it charges borrowers, a move designed to save individual home buyers hundreds of dollars annually and help jump-start the housing market.

It’s always a great time to buy a home–just ask a Realtor™. Similarly, it is always good public policy to jump-start the housing market–just ask anyone in the housing lobby.

One of the best times to jump-start the housing market was the early 2000s. If you need to be reminded of that, attend this event featuring Peter Wallison. Recently, I reviewed his latest book.

World Bank Says Have a Nice Day

From Ian Talley of the WSJ.

A host of governments around the world don’t have enough income to buffer against growth risks and higher borrowing costs. “You might think that you have sustainable debt dynamics, but that can change dramatically,” said Ayhan Kose, a lead author of the bank’s latest Global Economic Prospects report. Part of the report was published late Wednesday.

Read the whole thing. It is hard to pick out the scariest sentence.

The way I think about institutions that rely heavily on debt is that there are two equilibria. In the good equilibrium, lenders are confident (rightly or wrongly) that the debt will be repaid, interest rates are low, and there is no crisis. In the bad equilibrium, lenders are doubtful (rightly or wrongly) that the debt will be repaid, interest rates are high, and there is a crisis. While you are in the good equilibrium, it looks like borrowing does not cause any problem. When you hit the bad equilibrium, people look back and ask how you could have been so stupid. A few years ago, I explained the challenge with predicting the trigger point for a crisis ahead of time.

The article suggests that emerging markets are more fragile because in those countries private companies often need to be propped up by government, and in a crisis credit dries up for both private and public borrowers. The implicit assumption is that developed countries are immune from such double whammies. I am not so sure.

My Review of Colander and Kupers

I write,

the authors seek to dethrone neoclassical economics. In terms of a metaphor that Colander articulated at a conference, neoclassical economics represents a high mountain peak in terms of insights into social phenomena. However, there is a higher peak to be found, and to reach that summit economists must first climb down from neoclassical economics and scale the peak of complexity economics.

My review attacks the authors for “their failure to stick to a single concept of government.”

Tyler Cowen vs. the Club Model

He writes,

In the old days one heard speculation about bundling a great number of newspapers and blogs into a single-price access model, but in retrospect this probably never had much financial potential, for reasons which by now should be clear. What would an “all-you-can-eat buffet for economists” mean? And who if anyone would benefit from it?

What such a buffet would mean would be that by paying one amount per month you could read as much as you want from the NYT, WSJ, existing blogs, plus all of the new economics blogs that would emerge because bloggers would now be directly compensated by getting a share of the subscription money, perhaps in proportion to the number of views of their posts or some other metric. The beneficiaries would be readers who would read more NYT and WSJ articles if there were no paywall and readers of the new blogs that emerge.

And the biggest beneficiaries of all will be people who save time not having to click on the “close” window on all those unwanted pop-up ads!!!! Because with a bundled subscription, we can finally have content without advertising. The current newspaper model is headed toward the opposite.

This “club” might not be the most viable model. I once thought it would be, but over time I have become convinced that the patronage model will win out. That is, in the end, the NYT will be a money-losing enterprise, but some wealthy patron or patrons will be happy to keep it going. Similarly, those bloggers who want money will have to find patrons to support them. Whether content is better under a patronage model or under a club model is not clear.

Central Planning, Capital Regulations, and the Risk Premium

Per Kurowski writes,

current credit-risk-weighted capital (equity) requirements for banks, allow banks to hold government debt and loans to the AAAristocracy against much less equity than when financing “risky” small businesses and entrepreneurs, and so that is de facto what you get.

Risk-based capital regulations may or may not help regulators manage bank risk. (I argued here that the results were quite the opposite.) But they certainly affect the allocation of capital.

Many economists say that there is a huge demand for risk-free assets, as if this were a puzzle. Why is the “free market” so risk averse? Well, the government tells banks that they can earn a higher return on equity holding what the government defines as risk-free assets. AAA mortgage securities, Greek sovereign debt, whatever.

Kurowski’s post reminds me that financial regulation serves to allocate capital, and capital allocation by government can be thought of as central planning. There is a major socialist calculation problem involved. Moreover, there is a tarbaby problem. As the capital regulations produce perverse outcomes, policy makers look for policies to correct the outcomes, and these policies lead to other perverse outcomes, etc.

Mission-Driven vs. Philanthropic

Peter Thiel says,

mission-oriented companies are often defined by a unique mission that maybe others don’t think is important, whereas a lot of the social entrepreneurship efforts gravitate towards things where you have many copycats doing relatively similar things.

From an interview with Ezra Klein. Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

One of the main recommendations of the Colander-Kupers book is to expand what they call the “for-benefit” sector. By that, they mean corporations that seek both profits and social benefits. To be fair, they tout this more as an alternative to government programs than as an alternative to profit-maximizing firms. As you know, I have been given to ranting against non-profits, on more than one occasion.