Alex Tabarrok

Here’s an excellent letter from Don Boudreaux. I admit he had me at the title, Thinking At the Margin: It’s Revolutionary:

…I agree that most people are troubled that the likes of Tom Brady and Jennifer Lawrence earn far higher pay than does any firefighter or school teacher.  But this reality reflects not people’s correct understanding of a failing economy but people’s incorrect understanding of a successful economy.  It reflects also a failure of economists to better teach basic economics to the general public.  So let me ask: would you prefer to live in a world in which the number of people who can skillfully fight fires and teach children is large but the number of people who can skillfully play sports and act is very tiny, or in a world in which the number of people who can skillfully fight fires and teach children is very tiny but the number of people who can skillfully play sports and act is large?

I’m sure that you’d much prefer to live in a world in which skills at fighting fires and teaching children are more abundant than are skills at playing sports and acting.  Precisely because saving lives and teaching children are indeed far more important on the whole than is entertainment, we are extraordinarily fortunate that the numbers of our fellow human beings who possess the skills and willingness to save lives and to teach children are much greater than are the numbers who can skillfully play sports and act.

The lower pay of fire fighters and school teachers simply reflects the happy reality that we’re blessed with a much larger supply of superb first-responders and educators than we are of superb jocks and thespians.  Were it the other way around, then while we’d be better entertained with more top-flight sporting events and movies, all but the richest amongst us would suffer significantly greater risks of being unable to educate our children and of dying in house fires and from other mishaps.

As loyal readers know, I’ve long been in favor of a system where a drug approved in another major, developed country is also approved here. For a long time it seemed as if I was shouting in the wilderness but in the last few years support for the idea has grown, as the Cruz-Lee Reciprocity bill indicates. In A Cure for Swelling Drug Prices: Competition, Greg Ip at the WSJ notes another new development:

Mr. Tabarrok says the FDA should also offer reciprocal approval of drugs that regulators in other advanced countries have already cleared. Imports of generics from countries with government-negotiated prices ought not to be as controversial as patent-protected drugs because they involve far less expensive and risky research. Indeed, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association and its European equivalent, Medicines for Europe, have proposed a “single development pathway” under which approval in one jurisdiction would automatically confer approval in the other.

The proposed plan is for generics only where the issues are simpler but Greg is right to conclude more generally:

The FDA has long insisted, for safety reasons, that it approve all drugs regardless of whether they have been approved overseas. But if the FDA was once a better regulator than its overseas peers, it isn’t now. Ken Kaitin, a professor of medicine at Tufts University who has studied drug regulation around the world, says there is “absolutely no evidence” the U.S. drug supply is safer than in Britain, Canada or Europe.

Thus, the FDA wouldn’t be compromising safety by harmonizing its approvals with foreign regulators. Indeed, by making more drugs available at lower cost, it could ultimately make Americans healthier.

The Art of Kal Mansur

by on August 31, 2016 at 7:35 am in The Arts | Permalink

I’m a fan of the work of Canadian artist, Kal Mansur (whom I have known since high school). Photos of his work look like paintings but they are more like sculptures. Underneath the surface are sculptural elements that refract and diffuse the light. In person these pieces have a glow and they look subtly different at different angles or in different light.

Kal has an exhibition at George Billis in New York, Sep 1-Oct 1, 2016, with opening reception Sept. 1, 6-8 pm if you are interested or see the link above. Tell him Alex said hello.

Mansur3

Mansur4

The FDA and the EpiPen Shock

by on August 30, 2016 at 8:20 am in Economics, Medicine | Permalink

I haven’t written much about the massive increase in the price of the EpiPen because I’ve said it all before–mostly this about FDA costs and delay and some bending of various laws to favor cronies and, as with the infamous Shkreli and Daraprim case, one solution would be a reciprocity system that allowed importation of epipen-like devices approved abroad.

I’m glad, however, that I didn’t go into this in detail because SlateStarCodex has knocked one out of the park on this issue:

…when was the last time that America’s chair industry hiked the price of chairs 400% and suddenly nobody in the country could afford to sit down? When was the last time that the mug industry decided to charge $300 per cup, and everyone had to drink coffee straight from the pot or face bankruptcy? When was the last time greedy shoe executives forced most Americans to go barefoot?

…[lots of stuff about FDA and EpiPen specifically]…

Imagine that the government creates the Furniture and Desk Association, an agency which declares that only IKEA is allowed to sell chairs. IKEA responds by charging $300 per chair. Other companies try to sell stools or sofas, but get bogged down for years in litigation over whether these technically count as “chairs”. When a few of them win their court cases, the FDA shoots them down anyway for vague reasons it refuses to share, or because they haven’t done studies showing that their chairs will not break, or because the studies that showed their chairs will not break didn’t include a high enough number of morbidly obese people so we can’t be sure they won’t break. Finally, Target spends tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and gets the okay to compete with IKEA, but people can only get Target chairs if they have a note signed by a professional interior designer saying that their room needs a “comfort-producing seating implement” and which absolutely definitely does not mention “chairs” anywhere, because otherwise a child who was used to sitting on IKEA chairs might sit down on a Target chair the wrong way, get confused, fall off, and break her head.

(You’re going to say this is an unfair comparison because drugs are potentially dangerous and chairs aren’t – but 50 people die each year from falling off chairs in Britain alone and as far as I know nobody has ever died from an EpiPen malfunction.)

Imagine that this whole system is going on at the same time that IKEA donates millions of dollars lobbying senators about chair-related issues, and that these same senators vote down a bill preventing IKEA from paying off other companies to stay out of the chair industry. Also, suppose that a bunch of people are dying each year of exhaustion from having to stand up all the time because chairs are too expensive unless you have really good furniture insurance, which is totally a thing and which everybody is legally required to have.

And now imagine that a news site responds with an article saying the government doesn’t regulate chairs enough.

Read the whole thing.

Addendum: Steve in the comments reminds me that there is a case of a big increase in the price of chairs. Of course, it proves the rule.

An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.

The safe bet is against but stranger things have happened.

Here and more information here.

Hat tip: Next Draft.

The rest of the story” stories have a punch line that twists everything that came before into an entirely new and deeper perspective. My favorite such story is about John Nestor.

Nestor became a minor if hated celebrity in the mid-1980s in Washington, DC for his policy of driving on the beltway in the left hand lane at 55 mph, not a mile faster, the rest of the traffic be damned. Nestor believed that the 55 mph speed limit saved lives and he was going to help other people by slowing them down regardless of the exasperation, raised fingers, or honking. He knew better than other people.

The truth, of course, is that it’s actually variance in speed that kills so by driving more slowly than everyone else Nestor was increasing risk not lowering it. But that’s not the punch line. The punch line? John Nestor was an FDA bureaucrat so obstinate that even the overly cautious FDA thought he was a menace and they pulled him from his job in the renal section for not approving a single new drug in more than four years. On the roads or at the FDA, John Nestor illustrated why I say caution can be deadly.

My second favorite story like this comes from a recent article on land use policy by Mark Gimein at the New Yorker:

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain.

The punch line? “The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.” As Gimein notes Oppermann wasn’t able to move people out of San Francisco but he was able to “[cripple] growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums.”

So now you know the rest of the stories.

Paper Pushers

by on August 27, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Excellent piece by Tim Carney:

Five years ago, a new quirky-sounding consumer-rights group set up shop in a sleepy corner of Capitol Hill. “Consumers for Paper Options is a group of individuals and organizations who believe paper-based communications are critically important for millions of Americans,” the group explained in a press release, “especially those who are not yet part of the online community.”

This week, Consumers for Paper Options scored a big win, according to the Wall Street Journal. Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Mary Jo White has abandoned her plan to loosen rules about the need to mail paper documents to investors in mutual funds.

Mutual funds were lobbying for more freedom when it came to mailing prospectuses — those exhaustive, bulky, trash-can-bound explanations of the contents of your fund. In short, the funds wanted to be free to make electronic delivery the default, while allowing investors to insist on paper delivery. This is an obvious common-sense reform which would save whole forests of trees.

You won’t be surprised to lean that Consumers for Paper Options is funded by paper mills, timber firms and the Envelope Manufacturers Association.

What bothers me about these stories is not the rent-seeking–that is to be expected. What bothers me is that there is a law that prescribes how mutual funds must inform their customers. Why must every aspect of commercial life be governed by a gun? And this is where I expect pushback–the mutual funds will rip us off if we don’t have these laws, blah, blah, blah. Fine, believe that if you must, but then you have no cause to complain about rent seeking. You created the conditions for its existence.

City_ArtMichael Heizer, the large-scale sculpture artist, has been building City, a sculpture in the Nevada desert since 1972. City is reputedly on the scale of the Washington, DC’s National Mall and something like Teotihuacan but no one knows for sure since “Visitors are explicitly not welcome, and due to its orientation away from the road and system of earthen berms no part of “City” can be viewed from the ground without trespassing on posted property.” A few photos have been smuggled out.

The New Yorker has an interesting article on Heizer. Naturally I appreciated his thoughtful consideration of the economics of building something for the ages:

“City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that Heizer has mined and mixed on site. The use of valueless materials is strategic, a hedge against what he sees as inevitable future social unrest. “My good friend Richard Serra is building out of military-grade steel,” he says. “That stuff will all get melted down. Why do I think that? Incans, Olmecs, Aztecs—their finest works of art were all pillaged, razed, broken apart, and their gold was melted down. When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up, they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”

From the University of Chicago letter welcoming students:

…Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.

Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. … Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own….

The Efficient Markets Hypothesis

by on August 24, 2016 at 7:35 am in Economics | Permalink

In the first video in the Personal Finance section of our Principles of Macroeconomics course we pointed out that mutual fund managers do not beat the market on average. Why is this? In the second video, we take a look at the efficient markets hypothesis.

I’m rather fond of this video as it has some good story-telling elements, features Einstein in an important cameo (do you know why?) and yet also covers important ideas in an intuitive yet deep way.

The Return of Glass-Steagall???

by on August 24, 2016 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

The Atlantic writes:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have included plans to reintroduce the [Glass-Steagall] bill in their economic platforms. The argument for the act is that it could have prevented (or at least dampened) the 2008 financial crisis, and that reinstating it could ward off future ones. Is that the case?

The Atlantic’s editors reached out to economists and experts in financial regulation to ask them why Glass-Steagall is seeing renewed popularity right now, and what they think would make America’s financial system safer in the future.

Here’s part of what I had to say:

When Black Lives Matter calls for a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act we know that the Act has exited the realm of policy and entered that of mythology. No, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act would not end racism. Nor would restoring Glass-Steagall have done much, if anything, to have avoided the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner was correct when he said the problems at the heart of the financial crisis had “nothing to do with Glass-Steagall.”

The financial crisis is best understood as a run on the shadow banking system, that collection of financial intermediaries who based their credit creation not on deposits but on repo, money market funds, structured investment vehicles, asset-backed securitizations and other financial structures. Separate commercial and investment banking? Please. The problem was that by 2007 the shadow banking system had become so separated from commercial banking that the Federal Reserve didn’t know that a majority of credit was being generated by the shadow banks.

…“Nothing has been done!” may play well in some quarters but the Obama administration has in fact imposed systematic reform on the financial system. Most importantly, capital requirements have been increased (leverage has been reduced), forcing financial intermediaries to have greater skin in the game and to provide a cushion in the event of a fall in asset prices. Moreover, capital requirements have been extended far into the shadow banking system. Most recently, the Fed has imposed a capital surcharge on the biggest institutions i.e. the too big to fail institutions.

…Ironically, despite the political power of the financial sector it seems that more has been done to raise bank capital ratios than to require homeowners to raise their capital ratios by requiring larger down payments. There is a lesson there.

Robert Reich, Sheila Bair, Lawrence White, Stephen G. Cecchetti and others also comment. Only Reich, with some support from Blair, is enthusiastic.

New MRU Course: Money Skills!

by on August 22, 2016 at 7:23 am in Economics, Film | Permalink

We have a new course at Marginal Revolution UniversityMoney Skills. The first set of videos overlap with our Principles of Macroeconomics course and cover things like lessons from economics for investing in the stock market. We also cover this important material in our textbook, Modern Principles. Later videos will cover time discounting (mortgages), career choice, renting versus owning and other topics depending on demand.

Here’s our first video, How Expert Are Expert Stock Pickers? Later in the week, Tyler will cover the theory of efficient markets.

The Japanese Zoning System

by on August 19, 2016 at 12:04 pm in Economics, Law | Permalink

In Laissez-Faire in Tokyo Land Use I pointed to Japan’s constitutional protection of property rights and it’s relatively laissez-faire approach to land use to explain why housing prices in Japan have not risen in past decades, as they have elsewhere in the developed world. A very useful post at Urban kchoze offers more detail on Japan’s zoning system. Here are some of the key points.

Japan has 12 basic zones, far fewer than is typical in an American city. The zones can be ordered in terms of nuisance or potential externality from low-rise residential to high-rise residential to commercial zone on through to light industrial and industrial. But, and this is key, in the US zones tend to be exclusive but in Japan the zones limit the maximum nuisance in a zone. So, for example, a factory can’t be built in a residential neighborhood but housing can be built in a light industrial zone.

…[the] Japanese do not impose one or two exclusive uses for every zone. They tend to view things more as the maximum nuisance level to tolerate in each zone, but every use that is considered to be less of a nuisance is still allowed. So low-nuisance uses are allowed essentially everywhere. That means that almost all Japanese zones allow mixed use developments, which is far from true in North American zoning.

…[The] great rigidity in allowed uses per zone in North American zoning means that urban planing departments must really micromanage to the smallest detail everything to have a decent city. Because if they forget to zone for enough commercial zones or schools, people can’t simply build what is lacking, they’d need to change the zoning, and therefore confront the NIMBYs. And since urban planning departments, especially in small cities, are largely awful, a lot of needed uses are forgotten in neighborhoods, leading to them being built on the outskirts of the city, requiring car travel to get to them from residential areas.

Meanwhile, Japanese zoning gives much more flexibility to builders, private promoters but also school boards and the cities themselves. So the need for hyper-competent planning is much reduced, as Japanese planning departments can simply zone large higher-use zones in the center of neighborhoods, since the lower-uses are still allowed. If there is more land than needed for commercial uses in a commercial zone, for example, then you can still build residential uses there, until commercial promoters actually come to need the space and buy the buildings from current residents.

In addition, residential means residential without discrimination as to the type or form of resident:

…In Japan…residential is residential. If  a building is used to provide a place to live to people, it’s residential, that’s all. Whether it’s rented, owned, houses one or many households, it doesn’t matter.
This doesn’t mean that people can build 10-story apartment blocs in the middle of single-family houses (at least, not normally). As I mentioned, there are maximum ratios of building to land areas and FAR that restricts how high and how dense residential buildings may be. So in low-rise zones, these ratios mean that multifamily homes must also have only one to three stories, like the single-family homes around them. So in neighborhoods full of small single-family homes, you will often see small apartment buildings full of what we would call small studio apartments: one room with a toilet.>

In short, as the author concludes, Japan’s zoning laws are more rational, more efficient and fairer than those used in the United States.

More details in the post. Hat tip: Sandy Ikeda.

Here’s a post I wrote in 2009 (no indent) that I will update today:

In an interesting paper, Aghion, Algan, Cahuc and Shleifer show that regulation is greater in societies where people do not trust one another.  The graph below, for example, shows that societies with a greater level of distrust have stronger minimum wage laws.  Note that the result is not that distrust in markets is associated with stronger minimum wages but that distrust in general is associated with greater regulation of all kinds.  Distrust in government, for example, is positively correlated with regulation of business.  Or to put it the other way, trust in government (as well as other institutions) is associated with less regulation.

minwagedistrustrespectdistrustAghion et al. argue that the causality flows both ways on the regulation-distrust nexus. Distrust makes people turn to government but in a society with a lot of distrust government is often corrupt and this makes people distrust even more.  Crucially, when people distrust others they invest not in the highest return projects but in human and physical capital that is complementary to distrust–for example, they invest in human capital that helps them bond with their group/tribe/family rather than in human capital that helps them to bond with “outsiders” and they invest in physical capital that is more difficult to expropriate rather than in easier to expropriate capital, even though in both cases the latter investments may be the all-else-equal higher return investments.  Such distrust traps are quite similar to Bryan Caplan’s idea traps.

Thus, societies with a lot of distrust generate regulation and corruption and citizens who don’t have the skills or preferences to break out of the distrust equilibrium.  Consider, for example, that in societies with a lot of distrust parents are less likely to consider it important to teach their children about tolerance and respect for others.

The update should be obvious. More and more this appears to be describing the United States. More distrust in government, more regulation, lower growth and more people who are so distrustful of one another that they can’t cooperate to break out of the bad equilibrium. Here drawn from Our World in Data is interpersonal trust in the United States.

DistrustoverTime

Kate Downing, a member of the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission, has resigned in protest at its no-growth policies. She writes:

After many years of trying to make it work in Palo Alto, my husband and I cannot see a way to stay in Palo Alto and raise a family here. We rent our current home with another couple for $6200 a month; if we wanted to buy the same home and share it with children and not roommates, it would cost $2.7M and our monthly payment would be $12,177 a month in mortgage, taxes, and insurance. That’s $146,127 per year — an entire professional’s income before taxes. This is unaffordable even for an attorney and a software engineer.

…I have repeatedly made recommendations to the Council to expand the housing supply…Small steps like allowing 2 floors of housing instead of 1 in mixed use developments, enforcing minimum density requirements so that developers build apartments instead of penthouses, legalizing duplexes, easing restrictions on granny units, leveraging the residential parking permit program to experiment with housing for people who don’t want or need two cars, and allowing single-use areas like the Stanford shopping center to add housing on top of shops (or offices), would go a long way in adding desperately needed housing units while maintaining the character of our neighborhoods and preserving historic structures throughout.

The vituperative responses to her letter in the local paper (quite a few now deleted for language) included many like the following:

What with everything going on I have come to realize there is a vast difference between Baby-Boomers, X-Generation, and Millennials. Not sure where Kate falls into that, suspect she is a Millennial, but her overall lack of experience regarding city planning shouts out. “Disruption” is code for the Millennials, not so for Baby-Boomers. We are not going to turn ourselves on our heads because the younger group demands change.

And another:

I’m so glad we have one less inexperienced, new resident on the Planning and Transportation Commission that is demanding that long-time residents sacrifice their hard-earned quality of life for young, new residents that want the benefits without the sacrifice and hard work.

These kinds of claims are perfectly sensible. The people who bought their homes a long time ago lucked into a windfall and they resentfully lash out at anyone trying to cut in on that windfall. But notice how un-American these claims are. The current residents want to protect their gains by telling other people how they can use their property. When a new restaurant starts to take patrons from an old restaurant we generally don’t think that the old restaurant–the long-term resident–has the right to prevent the new restaurant from opening. The same is true, by and large, for new technologies and ways of doing business. Yet when it comes to residential land we give the old residents a veto on the new.

We have collectivized property in the United States (unlike in say laissez-faire Tokyo). Property is not fully collectivized, of course, but a person’s land is not their own–it’s subject to the dictates of the collective. Collectivization has been tried in many other times and places and the results are by now predictable. Collectivization in Palo Alto has produced inefficiency, high costs and a politicization of choice that makes for ill-will and endless conflict.