Consider my previous hypothesis that so many yields have gone negative because of the insurance value of those relatively safe assets.  If that were true (true to some extent, I am not claiming that is the only factor behind the supply and demand curves), could a problem be solved by issuing more safe assets?  That could be done through more government spending or big tax cuts, either creating more government borrowing and thus more safe assets.

I often see it taken for granted that “selling more insurance” into the face of market demand would be a good thing.  And maybe so.  But it doesn’t follow in any simple way from theory, as is sometimes implied.  For one thing, this isn’t a straightforward market setting but rather there is a monopoly supplier that is not selling market outputs, and furthermore the private and social returns to either insurance or risk-taking are not in general equal.

So ask yourself which has a higher social rate of return?

1. How the government would spend marginal funds, plus relatively wealthy people buying more insurance

2. How private consumers would spend a tax cut, plus relatively wealthy people buying more insurance

3. Relatively wealthy people allocating more funds to riskier investments, and not getting that additional insurance

There is no way to tell, not from theory or for that matter from any kind of simple, straightforward empirics.  And from a social point of view, we therefore do not know if more safe assets should be put on the market.  There is of course a fourth possibility:

4. Because private investors enjoy more safe assets, they end up taking greater risks and the whole PPF shifts out

Again maybe, maybe not.  If it is true, a variety of subsidies to insurance markets, implicit or explicit, could improve welfare.  That is in contrast to Kenneth Arrow’s older argument that it is the risky investments that need to be subsidized and subsidized directly.  I say there is only so much “crowding in” to be had, especially during a time of near-full employment.

Another argument might be:

5. Selling more safe assets would raise nominal yields and make monetary policy potent again

I don’t want to go through all of that again, but suffice to say it had a better chance of being true in 2010 than today.  Here is John Cochrane on related issues.

Inside, two stocky men could be heard debating the merits of the different ambassadorships they hoped to earn under Mrs. Clinton. Even a low-ranking posting meant having “ambassador” on a child’s wedding invitation, the two agreed, and would be helpful in wrangling invitations to sit on corporate boards.

Here is the full NYT story, by Nick Confessore, and no I am not suggesting this is worse under one party than another.  That is via Mark Leibovitz and Henry Farrell.

That is the new Joel Mokyr book, due out in November, file under Arrived in My Pile.

Here is the book’s home page, here is a related talk.

A key problem with solar energy is intermittency: solar generators produce only when the sun is shining, adding to social costs and requiring electricity system operators to reoptimize key decisions. We develop a method to quantify the economic value of large-scale renewable energy. We estimate the model for southeastern Arizona. Not accounting for offset carbon dioxide, we find social costs of $138.40 per megawatt hour for 20 percent solar generation, of which unforecastable intermittency accounts for $6.10 and intermittency overall for $46.00. With solar installation costs of $1.52 per watt and carbon dioxide social costs of $39.00 per ton, 20 percent solar would be welfare neutral.

20 percent solar for Arizona as the social welfare break-even point does not strike me as especially impressive, but of course the infrastructure integration technologies may yet advance.  In gross terms, intermittency costs exceed carbon costs.  Note also that forecastable intermittency accounts for most of the costs, and so with perfect storage solar would be a much more efficient technology.

Here are ungated versions of the paper.

This possibly gated but excellent nonetheless piece is from the FT, here is one excerpt:

A few weeks ago was typical. After some time off, my feed aggregator displayed 794 blog posts, 56 of them foolishly filed into the “must read” folder. Here lay a polemic blasting the FT for worrying about China’s debts; there a graph strewn post about US inflation expectations. Virtuoso “infovore” Tyler Cowen had dug up a fascinating passage on how China runs monetary policy. Another polymath, Brad DeLong (former Clinton staffer and tireless scourge of rightwing bunkum), had spent some minutes producing a few hundred words on “the intellectual role of the economist in public life”, throwing out references to pre-Christian philosopher Hermippos of Smyrna as a warm-up. Another writer, an anonymous retired trader with a bad back, explained how quantitative easing exposes central bankers as a bunch of bungling frauds. It felt like his fifth such post in a week.

And so on…

And yet in 10 years of trying to make sense of the economic world around me, I have found nothing as reliably good as the blogosphere.

And so on!  How can you not love an article that refers to an “omni-reading angel in the celestial library”?

There is a hat tip to Scott Sumner and a nice appreciation of Steve Randy Waldman as well.

That is the counterintuitive take from my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one part of the argument:

Perhaps the most overlooked point is that the supply of negative-yielding securities is not so large relative to total global wealth. A recent Credit Suisse estimate suggested that global wealth could reach $369 trillion by 2019, reflecting growth rates of perhaps 7 percent a year. Such numbers are typically inexact, because who can measure the value of all the land in China and the buildings in Uzbekistan? Nonetheless, this number is truly large and it has been growing rapidly. By comparison, the negative-yield securities seem like not such a big deal.

Maybe it’s time we started thinking of negative securities as the equivalent of fire or earthquake insurance for that wealth. If there is truly $300 trillion in global wealth, is it so crazy to think that investors would pay a premium to buy $10 trillion dollars’ worth of insurance?

Keep in mind that if you buy securities at a yield of negative 1 percent a year, and equities are yielding 4 percent on average, your insurance cost on the safer securities is roughly 5 percent of the upfront investment.  So on $10 trillion of safe securities, that is an insurance premium of roughly $500 billion — a relatively small chunk of the $300 or $400 trillion of total global wealth.  In percentage terms it is cheaper than the homeowner’s insurance many of us pay for every day.

Observers sometimes wonder why there are so many negative yields at a time when volatility indices are not always so high. But the key to the risk-protection insight is not that the world is more volatile, which may or may not be the case at a given point in time, but rather that the quantity of otherwise hard-to-insure global wealth is significantly higher than in times past. It is worth noting that in both China and India, standard insurance remains an underdeveloped sector.

Do read the whole thing.

In Germany, where I live, you get money back for plastic bottles (“Pfand”). Sometimes €0.25 per bottle. And yet, I collect them, without ever finding the time to cash them. I never outright throw them away, but leave them standing neatly close to public trash cans. They are gone in less than an hour.

German colleagues are horrified by my barbaric behavior. I tell them that someone will recycle them, and get the money. But they are actually are horrified that I am not willing to claim the money as everyone else does. I can explain that I would be working below minimum wage if I were to spend time and mental bandwidth returning bottles. But these reasons are no use against the dogma that pfand bottles should be returned. Man macht das nicht.

That is from Londenio.  And, not from the comments, here is a short piece on German economists:

So, my claim is that economists are only respected and accepted in the broader public discourse if they are like lawyers. And my conjecture is that this will remain so.

That is Rüdiger Bachmann: “Die hier geäußerten Meinungen sind nicht unbedingt die Sicht des Vereins für Socialpolitik.”

That is my new Bloomberg View column, here are some excerpts:

Enter Richard von Glahn’s “The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century,” a book likely to go down as one of the year’s best. Over the last 15 years, the economics profession has gone from a poor understanding of China’s economic history to knowing quite a bit. Von Glahn’s exhaustive but readable book is the best guide to this rapidly growing body of knowledge.

…a lot of autocratic Chinese regimes in history have proven stable even in periods of fairly slow economic growth. It can take them centuries to fall and be replaced, and even then a foreign invasion, like ones by the Mongols or Manchus, may be required.

From today’s media, one sometimes receives the impression that a Chinese growth rate below 4 or 6 percent could mean radical instability and a rapid fall of the government, but Chinese history does not show this pattern. That is hardly proof of how things will run in the future, but it should shift our expectations in the direction of greater Chinese political stability.

Other times, Chinese regimes can fall for what might at first appear to be relatively arbitrary reasons.  And the key point is this:

If there is a single common theme running through the many centuries covered by this book, it is the never-fully-successful quest of the Chinese state for revenue and fiscal stability. One reason China fell behind Western Europe in the 18th century is simply that the Chinese state spent less on creating valuable public goods and infrastructure.

In 1993, 15 years after it began making market-oriented reforms, the Chinese central government’s direct revenue was only 3 percent  of gross domestic product, with the usual caveat that no Chinese numbers should be taken as exact measures. Only in the last 10 years has that revenue share exceeded 10 percent of GDP; by comparison, in the U.S. in normal times that number sits in the range of 17 to 18 percent. For all the images Americans might have of China’s government as a communist behemoth, the country’s political order is better understood as still somewhat immature.

Do read the whole thing.  You can order Glahn’s book here, it is one of my favorites of the year so far.

Land use regulations raise prices, reduce mobility and increase income inequality in the United States. In many parts of the developing world, however, the situation is worse, much worse.

In an excellent piece Shanu Athiparambath writes:

Land is not scarce in Delhi, as I learned in one of those days, when a friend drove me around the city. There is enough land for everybody to live in a mansion. Delhi has nearly 20,000 parks and gardens. Large tracts of land remain idle or underutilized, either because the government owns it, or because property titles are weak. Politicians and senior bureaucrats live in mansions with vast, manicured lawns in the core of the city. Some of these political eminentoes farm on valuable urban land while firms and households move to the periphery or satellite cities where real estate prices are lower. So the average commute is long, roads are too congested, and Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Zoning regulations inflict great harm. But it is difficult for Americans to imagine the cost of zoning in Indian cities. Delhi is one of the most crowded cities in the world, and there is great demand for floor space. But real estate developers are not allowed to build tall buildings. In Delhi, for apartment buildings, the regulated Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is usually 2. FAR, an urban planning concept, is the ratio of built-out floor space to the area of the plot.

This means, in Delhi, developers are not allowed to build more than 2,000 square feet of floor space on a 1,000 square feet plot. If a building stands on the whole plot, this would be a two-storey building.

To understand the harm this inflicts on the world’s second-most populous city, remember that in Midtown Manhattan, FAR can go up to 15. In Los Angeles, it can get as high as 13, and in Chicago, up to 12. In Hong Kong’s downtown, the highest FAR is 12, in Bahrain it is 17, and in Singapore it can get as high as 25. Not surprisingly, office space in Delhi’s downtown is among the most expensive in the world. It is impossible to profitably redevelop these crumbling buildings in Delhi’s downtown because they are under rent control.

You might expect the capital city to be especially restrictive, just as is Washington, DC, but in Mumbai, the densest major city in the world, the downtown FAR is an absurdly low 1.33.

Think about it like this: A FAR is like a tax on manufacturing land. Why would you impose prohibitive taxes in places where land is most desperately needed?


by on July 26, 2016 at 3:35 am in Economics, Law, Television, Travel | Permalink

Man faces prison for scheme inspired by Seinfeld plot where he ‘brought 10,000 cans from out of state to take advantage of Michigan’s higher deposit rates’

That is the headline, here is the story via the excellent Mark Thorson.  For the under-informed amongst us:

In Michigan you can get 10c for every bottle you give back – whereas places such as New York will only give you 5c.
But it is illegal for someone to knowingly bring them from somewhere else in order to get cash.

China’s “augmented fiscal deficit” (i.e. off-budget items included) has climbed to nearly 15% of GDP


That is from Goldman Sachs, via Simon Rabinowitz.

That is my next book, now finished, due out February 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.  You can pre-order it from Amazon or Barnes&Noble.  Recommended!

Very little of the content of this book has appeared on Marginal Revolution.  It contains my thoughts on the death of American restlessness, what is happening with segregation by race and income, how we have become a nation of “matchers,” why crime rates will move up, the ultimate sociological roots of the economic great stagnation, why Steven Pinker is probably wrong about world peace, what we can learn from the riots and violence of the 1960s, why the bureaucratization of protest matters, marijuana vs. cocaine vs. heroin, in which significant way gdp statistics really do under-measure productivity, the importance of cyclical theories of history, and what Tocqueville got right and wrong about America.

And much more!  Most of all it is about why the future will be a scary place.

I also am making a special offer for those who pre-order the work.  Just send me an email to (or my gmail), and tell me you have pre-ordered The Complacent Class, and I’ll send you a free copy of another work by me — about 45,000 words — on the foundations of a free society.

I have been revising this second one for over fifteen years, and it is called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  It is finally ready.

You will receive links to an on-line version with images, a pdf with images, and a plain vanilla pdf for Kindle.

In that work, I outline a true and objectively valid case for a free and prosperous society, and consider the importance of economic growth for political philosophy, how and why the political spectrum should be reconfigured, how we should think about existential risk, what is right and wrong in Parfit and Nozick and Singer and effective altruism, how to get around the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, to what extent individual rights can be absolute, how much to discount the future, when redistribution is justified, whether we must be agnostic about the distant future, and most of all why we need to “think big.”

These are my final thoughts on those topics.  And to be fair, this is likely to come out someday as a more traditional book, but that will not happen soon as I have not shopped it around to any publisher.  So if you pre-order The Complacent Class, you’ll get what is an advance and also free copy of Stubborn Attachments.

Are you feeling down because of the political conventions?  Or maybe you’re feeling down because of me?  This is exactly the bracing and optimistic tonic you need.  These two works, taken as a whole, cover where we are at and also where we need to go.

Addendum: If you are a member of the media and would like to receive a review copy of THE COMPLACENT CLASS (St. Martin’s Press; On-sale: February 28, 2017), please contact Gabrielle Gantz:; or 646-307-5698.

Three new books on Europe

by on July 24, 2016 at 9:32 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Markus K. Brunnermeier, Harold James, and Jean-Pierre Landau, The Euro and the Battle of Ideas.

Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, Europe Isn’t Working.

Philipp Ther, Europe Since 1989.

All three appear to be useful…

This is remarkable:

Now scientists have determined that humans and their honeyguides [a kind of bird] communicate with each other through an extraordinary exchange of sounds and gestures, which are used only for honey hunting and serve to convey enthusiasm, trustworthiness and a commitment to the dangerous business of separating bees from their hives.

The findings cast fresh light on one of only a few known examples of cooperation between humans and free-living wild animals, a partnership that may well predate the love affair between people and their domesticated dogs by hundreds of thousands of years.

Claire N. Spottiswoode, a behavioral ecologist at Cambridge University, and her colleagues reported in the journal Science that honeyguides advertise their scout readiness to the Yao people of northern Mozambique by flying up close while emitting a loud chattering cry.

For their part, the Yao seek to recruit and retain honeyguides with a distinctive vocalization, a firmly trilled “brrr” followed by a grunted “hmm.” In a series of careful experiments, the researchers then showed that honeyguides take the meaning of the familiar ahoy seriously.

…Researchers have identified a couple of other examples of human-wild animal cooperation: fishermen in Brazil who work with bottlenose dolphins to maximize the number of mullets swept into nets or snatched up by dolphin mouths, and orcas that helped whalers finish off harpooned baleen giants by pulling down the cables and drowning the whales, all for the reward from the humans of a massive whale tongue.

But for the clarity of reciprocity, nothing can match the relationship between honeyguide and honey hunter. “Honeyguides provide the information and get the wax,” Dr. Spottiswoode said. “Humans provide the skills and get the honey.”

Here is the full NYT story.

Here is perhaps the least analytical paragraph in what is mostly an analytical piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus (NYT).  It is however the paragraph easiest to excerpt:

Joseph Stiglitz is a short, oracular man with gray hair and gray stubble trimmed to equal length, which gives his head the round softness of a late-stage dandelion. His minimal-cognitive-load uniform is a blue sportcoat, an open-necked blue dress shirt and roomy gray trousers over thick-soled black sneakers; I saw him wear this unvarying attire to work in his vast personal complex at Columbia University, meetings at the Ford Foundation, a public Roosevelt colloquy with the Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza and Hill briefings. His clothes, along with his trundling gait, give him the appearance of a curmudgeonly but twinkle-eyed shtetl tailor, come to dispense wisdom about structures of international trade-dispute arbitration as he fits the bar mitzvah boy for a suit. He has a dry wit but seems not entirely sure when jokes have been received as such, and so, as if someone once told him that he should soften his fearsome intellect by smiling more, he punctuates his speech with a randomized distribution of grins.

There is much on the Roosevelt Institute, Mike Konczal, and how the Left tries to copy the Right, among other topics, recommended.