The Economics of a Border-Adjustment Tax

Timothy Taylor writes,

Most countries around the world and all high-income countries other than the United States have “border adjustments” in their tax code, but a key point to recognize is that border adjustments are typically part of a value-added tax–not the corporate income tax.

. . .the Trump administration proposal for revising the corporate income tax is actually a first-cousin-once-removed of a value-added tax.

Taylor cites scholars of various political persuasions in support of this analysis. Greg Mankiw makes a similar point. If you prefer taxing consumption to taxing saving and labor, then you should get to know the economics of the border-adjustment tax in the context of a shift from taxing corporate profits to taxing corporate net revenue.

But John Cochrane points out

a tax system in which you tax $100 of sales, but offer $99 of deductions (costs, wages, earnings retained for investment), then tax only the last $1, then tax that $1 again as personal income, would seem to offer lots of room for shenanigans on just what gets deducted. Along with interesting financial engineering to “invest” more earnings and pay less dividends and interest.

The more radically you reform taxes, the more you risk creating new distortions, both foreseen and unforeseen.

Tyler Cowen has a point about politics.

I say anything complicated they will just screw up, and the lack of transparency in the plan means eventually it will lead to a tax hike and furthermore a good deal of favoritism and rent-seeking along the way. Best hope is simply that they cut the corporate tax rate and don’t do much else on that front.

It is true that lowering the corporate tax rate would reduce the malincentive effects of loopholes in the tax. Lowering the stakes involved would lower the rent-seeking. Also, simply lowering the rate seems less risky (see John Cochrane’s whole post.

The economic theory of how a border-adjustment tax should work is worth knowing. However, theory tends to apply to concepts in the abstract. In practice, a lot of tax policy turns on what gets defined as taxable and what does not. And those regulatory and legislative decisions are where the rent-seeking and the distortions kick in.

Where are the Servants?

I asked this question five years ago. Recently, on Facebook, Nathan Smith wrote,

Consider the following hypothesis. Once upon a time, there was a notion of “respectability.” Society, represented chiefly by the gossip of housewives, imposed honesty, chastity, and maybe some degree of piety, not so much by force as by public opinion. And I think that mere “respectability” qualified one for certain jobs, such as child care, handling money, personal service, etc. Nowadays, tolerance and the Sexual Revolution have abolished the category of respectability, but there are still a lot of jobs where people don’t need special skills but do need to have good character, so some filter is needed. So education has become the new respectability. . .A whole social stratum finds it hard to get access to jobs they could do, because our nonjudgmental society refuses to circulate the information about people’s characters that potential employers need, and the substitute for respectability, education, can’t be universal because, while everyone could be chaste and honest, many don’t have the academic ability to succeed in college, and/or can’t afford it. So personal service, which almost vanished during the economically egalitarian mid 20th century, but would be well worth reviving today, doesn’t make a comeback for lack of an identifiable class of respectable people whom the rich would allow to be present in their homes. . .

My thoughts.

1. There are a lot of jobs that involve personal care. Elder care and child care are what I have in mind.

2. What Smith calls “character” might be described as conscientiousness.

3. I do not get the impression that the personal care market fails in any dramatic sense. That is, I do not get the impression that there are many conscientious people willing to take jobs in personal care who are unable to find such jobs. If such a market failure were to present itself, it could be solved by entrepreneurs forming companies to vet and guarantee the quality of individual providers of elder care and child care.

4. Not that Smith was responding to my original post, but there I was suggesting that the high concentration of wealth would imply not so much that every middle class family should have personal servants but that rich people should have hundreds or thousands of personal servants. I think it is an instructive issue to ponder, but I have not come up with any new theories in the past five years, although I would add that the “supply problem” might include the fact that there are many people who are not conscientious.

Robert Murphy on Mises and Economic Calculation

Murphy writes,

If a particular operation is unprofitable, that means that it absorbs resources that have a higher monetary value than the outputs it produces. In other words, everyone else in society outside of that operation thinks that its input resources are more valuable than its output goods (or services). This is feedback from everyone else telling the people running this operation: “You are reducing the value of economic resources available to the rest of us, so consider carefully what you have been doing. Is there a tweak you can make to your enterprise, so that you absorb fewer inputs and/or produce outputs that the rest of us value more highly?”

I often point out that government-promoted recycling operations tend to be unprofitable. For me, this creates a presumption that the value of the output in recycling is less than the cost of the inputs. In short, recycling wastes resources.

Read the whole essay. This is the sort of analysis that ought to be stressed to first-year (and later) economics students.

Not So Renewable?

Timothy Taylor writes,

annual global production of lithium has more than doubled from from about 16,000 metric tons in 2004 to over 36,000 metric tons by 2014. Even with this rise in quantity produced, the price of a metric ton of lithium carbonate has risen from $5,180 in 2011 to $6,600 in 2014.

He cites a report from Goldman Sachs on emerging themes, one of which is “Lithium is the new gasoline.” (The other claims in the report are also provocative.)

Changing our energy technology does not automatically eliminate scarcity. It is instead a form of substitution.

Hunter-Gatherer Economics and Sustainability

To many environmentalists, sustainability means leaving the world the way you found it. I think that this may reflect the instincts of a hunter-gatherer.

If you are a hunter-gatherer, how much you can eat is limited by the natural rate of replenishment. If you eat game or plants faster than they are replenished, your tribe will die.

Modern human welfare is not governed by replenishment. We use knowledge to add value to our environment. Cultivation of crops means that we can grow more food than we could obtain by gathering. And we apply ever-increasing ingenuity to this cultivation.

Sustainability of modern life is thus much more complex than sustainability of hunter-gathering. Our modern ancestors have left us the gifts of their ingenuity, so that what they took out of nature has not hurt our welfare. And we are likely to do the same for our descendants.

Tariffs vs. Quotas

Greg Mankiw writes,

rationing under price controls is never perfect. Under rent control, for example, apartments do not automatically go to those who value the apartments the most. The misallocation due to imperfect rationing makes the actual welfare cost of price controls much higher than the standard deadweight loss triangle.

Suppose that the minimum wage is $10. You have one worker who would be happy to work for $8 and another worker who would be happy to work for $10. If the second worker is the one who happens to get the job, you lose $2 of surplus due to what Greg is calling “imperfect rationing.”

I remember being taught the equivalence between tariffs and quotas. But it seems to me that such an equivalence fails by the same reasoning. The quota may be imperfectly rationed, unless rights to sell within the quota are tradable.

Concern with the term “public goods”

Frances Woolley writes,

in the US, as elsewhere, most public expenditure goes towards redistributive transfers, health and education. Table 2 shows
total government expenditures for 18 OECD countries. Most government expenditures go towards health (7 to 19 percent of government spending), education (7 to 15 percent), and ‘social protection’ programs that more directly redistribute income (19 to 45 percent).
The goods most often cited as public goods are unimportant in terms of overall government expenditure for OECD countries: defense accounts for 1 to 6 percent of spending; public order between 2 and 5 percent of spending.

Pointer from Bryan Caplan.

It is an interesting and wide-ranging essay, difficult to excerpt. Here is another:

substantial insights into the economics of non-rival goods can be gained from the analysis of clubs (for providing local goods that are non-rival but excludable), the theory of natural monopoly (for goods such as Microsoft office where there are substantial initial development costs but the additional cost of an extra Word user is (close to) zero), or the economics of information (for the development of new technologies or drugs, where the manufacture of the new drug may cost a dollar or two per user, making it close to non-rival but the drug development may cost millions). While it is interesting and useful to have a theory for the special sub-set of non-rival goods that happen to be non-excludable also, there too few such goods to justify the place such goods hold in the public economics curriculum

One point she is making is that we should not encourage students to think that the theory of public goods explains or describes the actual role of government.

The Economics of Sustainability

George Leef writes,

The sustainability movement isn’t interested in the kind of analysis that scholars bring to controversies. It wants zealots, such as the “eco-reps” now employed on many campuses to push the agenda. Recycling, for instance, is always advanced as an imperative for saving the planet. There are trade-off questions about recycling that have caused many people to conclude that its costs often exceed its benefits, but students are not encouraged to think about them.

It strikes me that introductory economics teachers need to include some thoughts on sustainability. Here are mine:

1. The most reliable indication of sustainability is the ability to make a profit at unsubsidized market prices.

2. When people disagree with the market’s judgment, there is a good chance that they are focusing on a cost they can see and ignoring a cost that they cannot see. For example, someone who argues that “eating local” is sustainable probably sees the cost of transporting food but does not see the cost of allocating land and water to inferior uses. Before modern transportation, refrigeration, and food preservatives, more of us “ate local.” Consequently, we wasted land near cities on farms, and that land now is used to house people or has been returned to wilderness.

3. If in order to get people to recycle you need to use subsidies or regulations, then that is a sign that recycling does not save resources and instead wastes them.

4. Remember that one of the laws of science is that in chemical reactions matter is neither created nor destroyed. There is a sense in which production of goods and services does not “use up” physical resources. Instead, it changes the form of matter from something that is relatively useless to something that is relatively useful.

5. The great industries of the world came about because entrepreneurs were able to take abundant, seemingly useless resources and make them valuable. Before internal combustion engines, oil was just annoying gunk. Before computers, silicon was just the main constituent in sand.

6. In a free-market economy, price signals tell consumers and entrepreneurs what can be wasted and what must be conserved. If property rights are clear and market prices are free to move, then there is no need to fear running out of any valuable resource.

7. Public policy is subject to public choice problems, including the bootleggers and baptists problem. I believe that the consensus now is that using corn to fuel cars is not sustainable. If a free market had experimented with using corn to fuel cars, the experiment would have failed and that would be the end of it. However, because there is now a substantial lobby for the ethanol mandate, government policy to enforce the use of corn to fuel cars remains in place indefinitely.

Properly taught, freshman economics has a lot of useful things to say about sustainability.

Teach Price Gouging Using Uber

I was talking with some young people in Boston about getting around during the severe snow. They commented that Uber’s prices would go up by a factor of 4 or more when things got really tough. But they were not angry. They were grateful that the could get transportation at all. And they understood the role that the higher prices played in helping the situation.

Perhaps one could discuss this phenomenon in class. And then ask why the young people did not complain about “price gouging.” Why is it that if a store were to raise prices on snow shovels during a snowstorm that would be price gouging, but Uber’s approach was not price gouging? Why would someone be inclined to favor a regulation to prevent the store from raising the price of shovels during a snow storm?

I suspect that the intuition is that the store’s supply of shovels is presumed fixed, but Uber’s supply of drivers goes up as prices rise. Since the higher price creates a supply response, people can see it playing a constructive role. But with the store and the snow shovels, all you see are higher profits.

Of course, there are two other benefits to higher prices for snow shovels. First, it discourages people who do not really need shovels from hoarding them (if you already have one shovel, you would not go out and buy a second one at a high price). Second, in the long run it encourages stores to keep extra shovels in stock. Knowing that they can make a good return from having a large inventory of shovels in case of a snow storm, the stores will be willing to hold larger inventories than if their profits are constrained.