That is a reader request.  I used to think the ideal tax rate on corporations should be zero, but that is no longer my view.  For one thing, too many individuals would find ways to self-incorporate, thereby avoiding personal income taxes on labor income.  Note that a small corporation controlled by you can return real income to you in a variety of non-taxable or less-taxed ways.

Furthermore, tax-exempt institutions such as non-profits and pension fund would end up owning too many corporations, to the detriment of (non-tax) efficiency.  While pension funds eventually must pay out that income in the form of pensions, those often go to high-wealth, low income elderly individuals, and thus would never end up taxed at such a high rate.

I now think that for the United States the tax rate on corporate income should be in the range of 18-25 percent, depending of course on what other decisions we make with our budget and tax systems.  It also would work to simply target the OECD average of the corporate rate.

A further question is whether the case for a zero corporate rate would be stronger if we shifted from income to consumption taxation.  That depends how easy it might be to partially evade the consumption tax, say by spending money abroad.  In general, to the extent evasion is possible that favors lower marginal tax rates but levied on a greater number of distinct points in the system, including in this case on the corporate veil.

I thank Megan McArdle for a useful conversation related to these points.

That is the new Peter Leeson book, and it is just out.  Here is the Amazon summary:

This rollicking tour through a museum of the world’s weirdest practices is guaranteed to make you say, “WTF?!” Did you know that “preowned” wives were sold at auction in nineteenth-century England? That today, in Liberia, accused criminals sometimes drink poison to determine their fate? How about the fact that, for 250 years, Italy criminally prosecuted cockroaches and crickets? Do you wonder why? Then this tour is just for you!

Here are the book’s rather spectacular blurbs.  Here is a short Peter piece on medieval ordeals.  Here is a Reddit thread on whether medieval ordeals actually were an effective test of guilt.  And he has this piece on superstition and Friday the 13th in Newsweek.  I would like to see a media outlet excerpt his piece on the rationality of gypsy culture.

I would say that Peter has written a very effective book within the Beckerian tradition, namely trying to explain economic phenomena in terms of a neoclassical rational actor model.  Nonetheless I am much less of a Beckerian than Peter is, at least for the socially-oriented issues he is considering.  Here is a simple typology of approaches:

1. Beckerians and the rational actor model.  I slot Peter in here, along with many Chicago School economists, Marvin Harris, and much of public choice economics.  An explanation shows how a social outcome stems from the interaction of means-end maximizing individuals, translated into some aggregate result.

2. Behavioral economics.  By now this is old news, but these researchers find what I consider to be relatively small deviations from the rational actor model.  This is usually done by measurement, rather than through more complete models.

3. Cultural economics, anthropologists, and many sociologists.  Peer effects are paramount, and Frenchmen see the world differently than do Americans, not to mention Bantus or Pygmies.  This is due to a social contagion of perception that does not boil down to rationality in the sense that economists understand it (you can build a model in which social mimicry at young ages is rational, but that model won’t generate much insight into the particular phenomena we are trying to explain, nor does that model pick up the mimicry mechanism very well).  Historical study plus thick description plus economic rationality at various margins (but margins only) plus some statistics is the way to go.  Mostly we’re trying to understand how and why other groups of people see the world in fundamentally different terms.

The economists who can best grasp other points of view thus are the masters of explaining macro-phenomena (by which I mean something quite distinct from traditional macroeconomics).

I am much closer to #3 than are most economists.  Furthermore, I view economists as patting themselves excessively on the back for #2, when #3 is far more important.  Peter has written a very good book mostly in the tradition of #1, though due to his Austrian background with periodic forays into #3.  I once wrote to Peter: “Gypsy culture rational?  How about Episcopalian investment bankers in Connecticut being rational?”  Probably neither are.

Emailed to me:

What do you think would happen if we returned to a world where commercial bank leverage was much reduced? (E.g. 2X max.) Or, maybe equivalently, if central banks didn’t act as a lender of last resort? Is that “necessary” for a modern economy?

Asset prices would fall a lot (presumably). What else? How much worse off would current people become? (Future people are presumably somewhat better off, growth implications notwithstanding—they are less burdened with the other side of all these out-of-the-money puts that central banks have effectively issued.) > > How should we think about the optimization space spanning growth rates, banking capital requirements, and intergenerational fairness?

My response:

First, these questions are in those relatively rare areas where even at the conceptual level top people do not agree. So maybe you won’t agree with my responses, but don’t take any answers on trust from anyone else either.

I think of the liquidity transformation of banks in terms of two core activities:

a. Transforming otherwise somewhat illiquid activities into liquid deposits. That boosts risk-taking capacities, boosts aggregate investment, and makes depositors more liquid in real terms. Those are ex ante gains, though note that more risk-taking, even when a good thing, can make economies more volatile.

b. Giving private depositors more nominal liquidity, but in a way that raises prices and thus doesn’t really increase real, inflation-adjusted liquidity for depositors as a whole. There is thus a rent-seeking component to bank activity and liquidity production.

Less bank leverage, you get less of both. In my view a) is usually much more important than b). For those who defend narrow banking, 100% fractional reserves, or just extreme capital requirements, a) is usually minimized. Nonetheless b) is real, and it means that some partial, reasonable regulation won’t wreck the sector as much as it might seem at first.

There is however another factor: if bank leverage gets too high, bank equity takes on too much risk, to take advantage of bank creditors and possibly taxpayers too. Or too much leverage can make a given level of bank manager complacency too socially costly to bear. This latter factor seems to have been very important for the 2007-2008 crisis.

So bank leverage does need to be regulated in some manner, and the better it is regulated the more the system can dispense with other forms of regulation.

That said, the delta really matters. Requiring significantly less bank leverage, at any status quo margin, probably will bring a recession. The recession itself may make banks riskier than the lower leverage will make them safer. In this sense many economies are stuck with the levels of leverage they have, for better or worse. It is not easy to pop a “leverage bubble.”

I don’t find the idea of 40% capital requirements, combined with an absolute minimum of regulation, absurd on the face of it. But I don’t see how we can get there, even for the future generations. We’ll end up doing too many stupid things in the meantime; Dodd-Frank for all its excesses could have been much worse.

I also worry that 40% capital requirements would just push leverage elsewhere in the economy. Possibly into safer sectors, but I wouldn’t be too confident there. And reading any random few books on “bank off-balance sheet risk” will scare the beejesus out of anyone, even in good times.

Now, you worded your question carefully: “commercial bank leverage was much reduced.”

A lot of commercial bank leverage can be replaced by leverage from other sources, many less regulated or less “establishment.” Overall, on current and recent margins I prefer to keep leverage in the commercial banking sector, compared to the relevant alternatives. It may be less efficient but it is socially safer and held within the Fed’s and FDIC regulatory safety net, probably the best of the available politicized alternatives. That said, there is a natural and indeed mostly desirable trend for the commercial banking sector to become less important over time, in part because it is regulated and also somewhat static in basic mentality. (Note that the financial crisis interrupted this process, for instance Goldman taking up a bank charter. I would still bet on it for the longer run.)

Obviously, VC markets are a possible counterfactual. This all gets back to Ed Conard’s neglected and profound point that “equity” is what is scarce in economies, and how many troubles stem from that fact. Ideally, we’d like to organize much more like VC markets, partly as a substitute for bank leverage and the accompanying distorting regulation, and maybe we will over time, but there is a long, long way to go.

One big problem with attempts to radically restrict bank leverage is that they simply shift leverage into other parts of the economy, possibly in more dangerous forms. Should I feel better about commercial credit firms taking up more of this risk? Hard to say, but the Fed would not feel better about that, it makes their job harder. This gets back to being somewhat stuck with the levels of leverage one already has, until they blow up at least. There are pretty much always ways to create leverage that regulators cannot so easily control or perhaps not even understand. Again this bring us back to “off-balance risk,” among other topics including of course fintech.

I view central banks as “lenders of second resort.” The first resort is the private sector, the last resort is Congress. I favor empowering central banks to keep Congress out of it. Central banks are actually a fairly early line of defense, in military terms. And I almost always prefer them to the legislature in virtually all developed countries.

I fear however that we will have to rely on the LOLR function more and more often. Consider how it interacts with deposit insurance. If everything were like a simple form of FDIC-insured demand deposits, FDIC guarantees would suffice.

But what if a demand deposit is no longer so well-defined? What about money market funds? Repurchase agreements? Derivatives and other synthetic positions? Guaranteeing demand deposits is a weaker and weaker protection for the aggregate, as indeed we learned in 2008. The Ricardo Hausmann position is to extend the governmental guarantees to as many areas as possible, but that makes me deeply nervous. Not only is this fiscally dangerous, I also think it would lead to stifling regulation being applied too broadly.

But relying more and more on LOLR also makes me nervous. So I view this as a major way in which the modern world is headed for recurring trouble on a significant scale, no matter what regulators do.

I am never sure how much of the benefits of banking/finance are “level effects” as opposed to “growth effects.” It is easy for me to believe that good banking/finance enables more consumption at a sustainably higher level, in part because precautionary savings motives can be satisfied more effectively and with less sacrifice. I am less sure that the long-term growth rate of the economy will rise; if so, that does not seem to show up in the data once economies cross over the middle income trap. That said, if there were an effect, since growth rates slow down with high levels in any case, I don’t think it would be easy to find and verify.

A few of you have asked about Trump decertifying the Iran deal.  I think it is a big mistake, keeping in mind the old chess maxim “The threat is stronger than the execution.”  If we slap them, they slap us back by doing something like, say, green-lighting the Iraqi invasion of Kurdistan.  Whatever next level of escalation we might consider, I don’t think it would do us much good.

That said, I find most defenses of the Iran deal shocking in their naivete or perhaps self-deception.  The deal didn’t do much good in the first place, and came to pass because the Europeans weren’t going to uphold the previous sanctions anyway.  As it stands, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium and develop and test long-range missiles, and they could buy a bomb from North Korea as quickly as it would take to deliver the package.  Furthermore, they still support terrorism on a large scale, talk gleefully about the destruction of Israel, and in general their citizenry favors the idea of the government having nuclear weapons.  They simply decided that a slower path toward nuclear weapons, rooted in stronger international economic relations, was in their national interest.  However much you think they have or have not violated the formal terms of the treaty, they’re using the treaty to get a better, richer, and more stable version of nuclear weapons.  Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that don’t have the luxury of wishful thinking on these issues, understand this quite well.

The thing is, Trump’s action won’t change any of this, and will only make us seem less reliable, should someday further action be required.  It is a foolish, high time preference move, but those who support it — Trump included — often have a better understanding of the underlying realities than do the critics.

The subtitle is A History of U.S. Federal Entitlement Programs, and the author of this new and excellent book is John F. Cogan of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution.  It is the single best history of what it covers, and thus one of the best books to read on the history of U.S. government or for that matter American economic history more generally.

How did the American entitlement state get built?  In multiple, discrete pieces:

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a modified version of President Truman’s Social Security proposals in June 1950.  The Social Security Amendments provided a mammoth across-the-board increase in monthly benefits.  The law’s sliding scale of benefits…averaged 77 percent per recipient…The 1950 Act also rewrote Social Security’s eligibility rules to enable hundreds of thousands of workers with little history of contributing payroll taxes to begin collecting benefits.


…from 1969 to 1975, inflation-adjusted federal entitlements pending grew annually at a remarkable 10 percent, registering an 86 percent increase in six years…Total annual inflation-adjusted entitlement expenditures grew 20 percent faster under President Nixon than they had under President Johnson.


The eligibility liberalizations from 1997 to 2008 produced sharp increases in the food stamp and Medicaid rolls.  From 1998 to 2008, the food stamp rolls increased to 28 million people from 20 million and the Medicaid rolls increased to 59 million from 40 million people.  The liberalizations enacted during the Great Recession have lasted well beyond the recession’s end in 2010.  In 2016, the number of food stamp recipients ballooned to 44 million, and the number of Medicaid recipients rose to 73 million in 2016.

Here is a good sentence:

In 2015, 41 percent of the nation’s nonelderly-headed households received entitlement benefits.

This book is well-written and has useful and important information on virtually every page.

Her earlier prediction:

Obamacare would not, and could not, be the program that had been promised or intended. It had already failed to deliver on key promises for coverage, affordability and of course, the infamous promise that “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” It was also dangerously unstable, requiring steady executive intervention just to keep the program from collapsing. I argued that these executive interventions, enthusiastically supported by the law’s proponents, were setting a precedent that would eventually be used against it. Worried that health care was too hostage to the vicissitudes of the markets, Democrats had instead made it the prisoner of politics.

“Essentially they’ve made it so that Republicans can undo two-thirds of this law with a stroke of the presidential pen,” I said at the close of my opening statement. “Obamacare is now beyond rescue. The administration has destroyed their own law in order to save it.” Four years later, we are watching those dominos fall.

Here is the full Bloomberg piece.

  • The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) declined to ask for help from mainland electric utilities in the days after Hurricane Maria, instead turning to a small Montana-based contractor to carry out grid restoration practices.
  • Earlier this week, PREPA CEO Ricardo Ramos told E&E News that his bankrupt utility did not reach out to munis on the continental U.S. because he was unsure it could pay them back for assistance. About 90% of the island remains without power weeks after the storm hit.
  • The American Public Power Association (APPA), the trade group for U.S. munis, confirmed that mutual assistance programs were not activated, but said PREPA had already contracted with Whitefish Energy by the time the trade group convened a conference call to coordinate aid. PREPA did not respond to requests for comment.

Here is the full story, and here is a related piece, via Brian S.

Vaping Saves Lives

by on October 13, 2017 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

E-cigarettes are less dangerous than cigarettes but are equally effective at delivering nicotine. Levy et al. estimate that if smokers switched to e-cigarettes millions of life-years would be saved, even taking into account plausible rates of non-smokers who start to vape. (It’s worth noting that the authors are all cancer researchers, statisticians and epidemiologists concerned with reducing cancer deaths.)

A Status Quo Scenario, developed to project smoking rates and health outcomes in the absence of vaping, is compared with Substitution models, whereby cigarette use is largely replaced by vaping over a 10-year period. We test an Optimistic and a Pessimistic Scenario, differing in terms of the relative harms of e-cigarettes compared with cigarettes and the impact on overall initiation, cessation and switching. Projected mortality outcomes by age and sex under the Status Quo and E-Cigarette Substitution Scenarios are compared from 2016 to 2100 to determine public health impacts.

Compared with the Status Quo, replacement of cigarette by e-cigarette use over a 10-year period yields 6.6 million fewer premature deaths with 86.7 million fewer life years lost in the Optimistic Scenario. Under the Pessimistic Scenario, 1.6 million premature deaths are averted with 20.8 million fewer life years lost. The largest gains are among younger cohorts, with a 0.5 gain in average life expectancy projected for the age 15 years cohort in 2016.

Vaping saves lives but the FDA has in the past tried to impose severe regulations on the industry and to make vaping less pleasurable. (Aside: It’s interesting that liberals tend to favor other risk-reducing devices such as condoms in the classroom but disfavor vaping while conservatives often take the opposite sides. I don’t think either group is basing their choices on the elasticities.)

The FDA, for example, has tried to ban flavored e-cigarettes. In a new NBER paper, Buckell, Marti and Sindelar calculate that:

…a ban on flavored e-cigarettes would drive smokers to combustible cigarettes, which have been
found to be the more harmful way of getting nicotine (Goniewicz et al., 2017; Shahab et al., 2017).
In addition, such a ban reduces the appeal of e-cigarettes to those who are seeking to quit; ecigarettes
have proven useful as a cessation device for these individuals (Hartmann-Boyce et al.,
2016; Zhu et al., 2017), and we find that quitters have a preference for flavored e-cigarettes.

Fortunately, the new FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has signaled a more liberal attitude towards vaping. It could be the most consequential decision of his tenure.

Hat tip: The excellent Robert Wilbin from 80,000 Hours.

USA fact of the day

by on October 12, 2017 at 7:24 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Law | Permalink

The top 0.1 percent of earners projected to pay more to the IRS than the bottom 80 percent combined. This year, official government data show, the top 20 percent will pay 95 percent of all income taxes.


Not just that: It’s hard to cut tax rates on moderate-income people without simultaneously benefiting the rich. That’s because everyone pays the same marginal tax rates on, say, their first $50,000 in income, regardless of how much they make in total. So cutting, for example, the 15 percent tax bracket helps the poor and rich alike.

That is all from Brian Faler at Politico.

Those who fail to repay a bank loan will be blacklisted, and they will have their name, ID number, photograph, home address and the amount they owe published or announced through various channels – including in newspapers, online, on radio and television, and on screens in buses and public lifts.

…In the southern city of Guangzhou, the personal details of some 141 debt defaulters have so far been displayed on screens in buses, commercial buildings and on media platforms at the request of local courts.

Meanwhile in Jiangsu, Henan and Sichuan provinces, the courts have teamed up with telecoms operators to create a recorded message – played every time someone calls – for those who fail to repay their loans. The message tells the caller: “The person you are calling has been put on a blacklist by the courts for failing to repay their debts. Please urge this person to honour their legal obligations.”

That is from SCMP, via Viking.

Elsewhere in the Middle Kingdom, Shanghai adopts a facial recognition system to name and shame jaywalkers.

Celebrity Misbehavior

by on October 11, 2017 at 2:26 am in Economics, Law, Sports, Television | Permalink

From Todd D. Kendall:

Casual empiricism suggests that celebrities engage in more anti-social and other socially unapproved behavior than non-celebrities. I consider a number of reasons for this stylized fact, including one new theory, in which workers who are less substitutable in production are enabled to engage in greater levels of misbehavior because their employers cannot substitute away from them. Looking empirically at a particular class of celebrities – NBA basketball players – I find that misbehavior on the court is due to several factors, including prominently this substitutability effect, though income effects and youthful immaturity also may be important.

Elsewhere, here is a Kaushik Basu micro piece on the law and economics of sexual harassment.  And a more recent piece from the sociology literature.  The practice increases quits and separations, with some of the costs borne by harassment victims and not firms; given imperfect transparency, recruitment incentives may not internalize this externality.  On other issues, here is a relevant AER article.  And this piece applies an insider-outsider model.  Here is Posner (1999), perhaps he has changed his mind.  Here is work by Elizabeth Walls, from Stanford.

I see negative externalities to sexual harassment across firms and sectors, and so, contra Posner (1999) and Walls, the most just and also efficient outcome is to tolerate one explicit and transparent form of the practice in the sector of formal prostitution and otherwise to keep it away from normal business activity.  I believe such a ban boosts womens’ human capital investment, investment in firm-specific skills, aids the optimal production of status, and limits one particular kind of uninsurable risk, with all of those benefits correspondingly higher in an O-Ring or Garett Jones model of productivity.

He has a forthcoming JET paper with Jorge Lemus, here is the abstract:

We construct a tractable general model of the direction of innovation. Competition leads firms to pursue inefficient research lines, because firms both race toward easy projects and do not fully appropriate the value of their inventions. This dual distortion will imply that any directionally efficient policy must condition on the properties of hypothetical inventions which are not discovered in equilibrium, hence common R&D policies like patents and prizes generate suboptimal innovation direction and may even generate lower welfare than laissez faire. We apply this theory to radical versus incremental innovation, patent pools, and the effect of trade on R&D.

Here is a slightly different version of the abstract, along with other research papers.  Here is Kevin on travel.  Kevin is at the University of Toronto, and also is author of the excellent blog A Fine Theorem.

Here is Kevin’s reading list on innovation, recommended.

Obama proposes lowering corporate tax rate to 28 percent

That is circa early 2012, and presumably Obama’s CEA signed off on the idea.  Romney at the same time proposed a rate of 25 percent.

I believe that, in a rush to criticize a proposed Trump tax cut, we are in danger of forgetting the wisdom of 2012.

From Emma Harris:

But the Seasteading Institute and the new for-profit spin-off, Blue Frontiers, have racked up some real-world achievements in the past year. They signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia in January that lays the groundwork for the construction of their prototype. And they gained momentum from a conference of interested parties in Tahiti in May, which hundreds of people attended. The project’s focus has shifted from building a libertarian oasis to hosting experiments in governance styles and showcasing a smorgasbord of sustainable technologies for, among other things, desalination, renewable energy and floating food-production. The shift has brought some gravitas to the undertaking, and some ecologists have taken interest in the possibilities of full-time floating laboratories.

…The next step in making the island a reality will be the passage of a law defining the ‘special economic zone’ that will cover the synthetic island. Blue Frontiers isn’t asking French Polynesia for any subsidies to build the island, but it is asking for a 0% tax rate, among other regulatory exceptions. It has hired French firm GB2A, based in Paris, to prepare legal research and a set of requests, which Blue Frontiers presented to the government at the end of September. The team hopes to see a bill emerge before the end of the year.

In the meantime, the Seasteading Institute is building excitement and courting potential investors with a series of gatherings. In May, it held talks, networking events and tours in Tahiti. Speakers included Fritch; Tony Hsieh, chief executive of online retailer Zappos in Las Vegas, Nevada; Tua Pittman, a master canoe navigator from the Cook Islands; and engineers, nanotechnologists and a ‘blockchain strategist’, a specialist in the distributed information systems behind cryptocurrencies. The seasteaders hope to use such systems to handle their financials, as well as any scientific data that they generate. But the event wasn’t all work. An announcement for a party on outrigger canoes cheerfully suggested: “Do not wear heels. Bring a swimsuit for an optional moonlight swim.”

On 22–29 October, Blue Frontiers will hold an Insiders Access Week for supporters and potential investors, a mix of tours, discussion and morning yoga with Hencken. Always ambitious, the team hopes to have draft legislation from the Polynesian government by then, and some detailed architectural plans. The goal is to break ground — or rather, sea — in 2018.

In the Nature article there is much, much more.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

I will be having a Conversation with them, in part connected to their very important forthcoming book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.  But not only.  What should I ask these two leading lights?

By the way, here is an abstract for the book:

The relentless increase of inequality in twenty-first century America has confounded analysts from both ends of the political spectrum. While many can point to particular contributing causes, so far none of the policies that have been enacted-not just in the United States but in other advanced countries-have been able to lessen the wealth and income gaps between the top decile and the rest. Critics on the left are more forceful critics of rising inequality, and they tend to blame capitalism and the private sector. Predictably, they see solutions in government action. Many on the right worry about the issue, too, but they come from a position that is more sanguine about corporations and more suspicious of government. But as the libertarian Brink Lindsey and the liberal Steve Teles argue in The Captured Economy, perhaps all of us-left, right, and center-are looking in the wrong places for culprits and solutions. They hone in on the government-corporate sector nexus, apportioning blame not only to both forces but also to the distorted form of governance that this partnership has created. Through armies of lobbyists, corporations and the wealthy have become remarkably adept at shaping policy-even ostensibly progressive policies-so that the field is tilted in their favor. Corporations have become classic ‘rentiers,’ using their monopoly power of influence over highly complicated legislative and regulatory processes to shift resources in their direction. FCC policy, health care regulation, banking regulation, labor policy, defense spending, and much more: in all of these arenas, well-resourced corporate rentiers have combined to ensure that the government favors them over everyone else. The perverse result is a state that shifts more and more wealth to the already-rich-even if that was never the initial intent of Congress, the President, or the electorate itself. Transforming this misshapen alliance will be difficult, and Lindsey and Teles are realistic about the chances for reform. To that end, they close with a set of reasonable policy proposals that can help to reduce corporate rentiers’ scope and power to extract excessive rents via government policy. A powerful, original, and genuinely counterintuitive interpretation of the forces driving the increase in inequality, The Captured Economy will be necessary reading for anyone concerned about the rising social and economic divisions in contemporary America.