Collinson, Ellen, and Ludwig have a new and long NBER paper (pdf) devoted to that topic.  Here are a few bits:

The United States government devotes about $40 billion each year to means-tested housing programs, plus another $6 billion or so in tax expenditures on the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC).

Yet total subsidies for home ownership may run as high as $600 billion, most of those not going to the poor.

There are over twenty different federal subsidized housing programs and most of them are no longer producing new units.

I am speaking for myself here, and not for the authors, but I cannot imagine any better case for cash transfers than to read this 75 pp. paper.

How about this?:

In 2012, housing authorities nationwide reported more than 6.5 million households on their waitlists for housing voucher or public housing.

That to my eye suggests targeting this aid is not working very well.

I found this to be an interesting comparison (I am not suggesting it is being driven by these federal housing policies):

The median renter household in 1960 was paying approximately 18 percent of his/her total family income in rent; the equivalent figure today is 29 percent.

Overall, I would like to see more economists call for the abolition of these programs and indeed some approximation of laissez-faire toward housing more generally.

The End of Asymmetric Information?

by on April 7, 2015 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

end of asymmetric information CatoAt Cato Unbound, Tyler and I ask whether the age of asymmetric information is ending and what implications this may have for regulation and markets. The Browser offers an excellent precis:

Sensors and reputation systems allow buyers to know what sellers know, principals to know what agents know, and vice-versa. Akerlof’s arguments have been overtaken. Any interested party can have access to information about product quality, worker performance, the nature of financial transactions. “A large amount of economic regulation seems directed at a set of problems which, in large part, no longer exist”

The end of asymmetric information will make markets work better but also governments. Here is one bit:

Many “public choice” problems are really problems of asymmetric information. In William Niskanen’s (1974) model of bureaucracy, government workers usually benefit from larger bureaus, and they are able to expand their bureaus to inefficient size because they are the primary providers of information to politicians. Some bureaus, such as the NSA and the CIA, may still be able to use secrecy to benefit from information asymmetry. For instance they can claim to politicians that they need more resources to deter or prevent threats, and it is hard for the politicians to have well-informed responses on the other side of the argument. Timely, rich information about most other bureaucracies, however, is easily available to politicians and increasingly to the public as well. As information becomes more symmetric, Niskanen’s (1974) model becomes less applicable, and this may help check the growth of unneeded bureaucracy.

We discuss used cars and Akerloff’s model for lemons, moral hazard problems, principal-agent problems, reputation mechanisms, computable contracts and much more.

We will be joined in future discussion by Joshua GansShirley V. Svorny, and Jeff Ely.

You will find it here.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: New York City, overrated or underrated?

PETER THIEL: That’s massively overrated.


PETER THIEL: We had a 25-year boom in finance, from ’82 to ’07. I think that’s slowly ebbing, slowly abating. It’s going to be increasingly regulated, and so if you want a long/short blue state trade, you want to be long California, short New York. The long/short red state trade, by the way, is you want to be long Texas, short Virginia.

If you ask, what do Virginia and New York have in common, and what do Texas and California have in common? Both Texas and California are very inward-focused places. California, both the Hollywood version and the Silicon Valley version, are very focused in on themselves. Texas is also a very inward-focused place.

What Virginia and New York, or let’s say DC and New York City, have in common is that they’re centers of globalization. Finance is an industry that’s fundamentally leveraged to globalization, and DC is fundamentally leveraged to international geopolitics.

I would bet on globalization slowly being in abeyance. I think with the benefit of hindsight, we will realize that 2007 was not just the peak year of the finance boom, but also the peak year of globalization, like maybe 1913. Happily, it hasn’t resulted in a world war, at least not yet, but I think we are in this period where globalization is steadily pulling back.

And so you want to be in places or industries that are levered to things other than globalization.

Self-recommending…The YouTube and podcast versions are here.

When Audrey Dimitrew won a spot on a club volleyball team in Chantilly, Va., the 16-year-old hoped to impress varsity coaches and possibly college coaches.

But when her coach benched her and the league told her she couldn’t join another team, the action shifted from one court to another — she and her family sued.

…The lawsuit is one of a number filed across the country in recent years as families have increasingly turned to the courts to intervene in youth sports disputes. Parents upset that their children have been cut, benched, yelled at by coaches or even fouled too hard are asking judges to referee.

The culture that is American youth sports, there is more here, via Michael Rosenwald.

Hayek on Gibraltar

by on April 4, 2015 at 1:06 pm in History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

In 1944, the celebrated economist Friedrich Hayek was commissioned by the British Colonial Office to undertake a report on the economy of Gibraltar. His conclusion was that the government of Gibraltar should use market forces to relocate working class Gibraltarians into neighbouring Spain. Yet despite the libertarian credentials Hayek had established via his work of the same year, The Road to Serfdom, such a policy would have moved Gibraltarians into the dictatorship of General Franco.

In a study presented to the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference, Chris Grocott argues that Hayek’s proposal to relocate Gibraltarians into Spain shows an alarming lack of political astuteness on the part of the winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Economics.

In the first instance, the British Colonial Office conveniently lost Hayek’s report. When it re-surfaced in early 1945, the Colonial Office then sent the report to the Admiralty who, unimpressed with Hayek’s condemnation of educational facilities in Gibraltar’s dockyard, moved to delay its publication. Meanwhile, Hayek himself was on a lecture tour of the United States, promoting The Road to Serfdom, and oblivious to the dismay that his report has caused.

There is more here, via the excellent but under-followed Mark Koyama.

You are all familiar with their recent financial mishaps in Iceland, note also theirs is not a history of financial stability:

It is fair to say that Iceland’s monetary history has been a turbulent one.  Currency controls in the 1920s to the 1950s were followed by chronic inflation in the 1970s to 1980s, with annual inflation reaching a high of 83% in 1983.  In 1981 it was considered necessary to redenominate the krona with 100 units being replaced by 1 new unit.

That is from a new Frosti Sigurjónsson report (pdf) advocating 100 percent reserve banking for Iceland.  In the “good old days” we had so many arguments against this arrangement — “disintermediation!” — but do those critiques hold up when so many nominal interest rates are in any case negative or close to zero?  In many countries banks may be fated to become money warehouses as it is.

An interesting question is whether Iceland can, with its current size and export profile, ever have monetary and financial stability.  With their exports and thus gdp so depending on fish and aluminum smelting and tourism, no other country shares their economic fluctuations, even roughly.  A fixed rate thus means a non-optimum currency, but a floating rate for 323,002 people may mean perpetual whipsawing from international capital flows, not to mention the risk of acquiring an oversized, hard to bail out banking system, as Iceland did before its Great Recession.

Should I file under Department of Why Not?  What if Scott Sumner asks me how to do this without inducing a collapse in nominal gdp?  If I interpret p.78 of the study correctly, the government will create new money by printing and injecting it into the economy through fiscal policy, as a means of forestalling this problem if need be.  Under this scenario, how powerful does the state become?  On what do they spend the money?

Frosti’s report, by the way, was commissioned by the Prime Minister and it is being taken very seriously.

I believe I first saw notice of this link from Stephen Kinsella.  Here are some responses to the idea.  Zero Hedge seems sympathetic.

Ian Bremmer tweeted:

There will surely be cheating on the Iran deal. But I still consider it a better outcome than letting negotiations fail. Close call.

That seems about right to me.

The YouTube version is here, the podcast version is here.

I was very happy with how it turned out, as I deliberately set out not to copy the content of any of Peter’s other dialogues.  You can learn how he thinks we will leave the “great stagnation,” whether the AI hype is justified, how he would boil his thought down to the smallest number of dimensions, whether NYC is over- or underrated, why globalization is likely to decline and what that means for different regions, the parts of the Bible which have influenced him most, “the Straussian Jesus,” to what age he thinks he will live, why Japan is special, how his German background matters, his favorite opening chess move, how and why company names matter, and even his favorite TV show, which he calls “schlocky.”

And much, much more, with commentary and questions from me throughout.  A transcript is being prepared as well.

Donald Shoup, whose work on parking has been featured on MR on several occasions, is retiring. Patrick Siegman, “the first Shoupista”, has written an appreciation which includes this excellent quote from Shoup’s classic study, Cashing Out Employer-Paid Parking:

Minimum parking requirements in the planning profession are closely analogous to bloodletting in the medical profession. For over two thousand years doctors prescribed bloodletting to cure most diseases, and medical textbooks contained elaborate parking-requirement-like tables telling exactly how much blood should be let from exactly which part of the body, and when, for every disease…

One strong similarity between bloodletting and minimum parking requirements is the general public acquiescence to both practices without any scientific research on their effects…

Another similarity between bloodletting and minimum parking requirements is the harm caused by both practices. In the case of bloodletting, the problem was magnified because physicians didn’t clean their instruments before proceeding to the next patient. In the case of parking requirements, the problem is magnified when planners require far more parking than is demanded even when all parking is free. Recall here that Willson (1992) found that the number of parking spaces required by zoning ordinances was double the peak accumulation of cars parked at suburban office sites in Southern California.

A final similarity between bloodletting and minimum parking requirements is that the practice of bloodletting gradually fell out of use, and minimum parking requirements in zoning ordinances are gradually being replaced by parking caps.

For much of his career, Shoup was a lonely voice shouting in the wilderness but he shouted reason and fact and his work has had increasing influence in recent years.

Addendum: Here is Tyler’s NYT column on Shoup’s work, Free Parking Comes at a Price.

Headlines to ponder

by on March 30, 2015 at 2:36 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Law, Religion | Permalink

Bank of Bird-in-Hand is the only new bank to open in the U.S. since 2010, when the Dodd-Frank law was passed

The WSJ story is here, via Binyamin Appelbaum.

I may not follow any of your suggestions, but just thought I should ask for advice, for my dialogue with Peter next week.  I am the interviewer, he is the interviewee, more or less.  #CowenThiel

One of the most remarkable discoveries of economics is that under the right conditions competitive markets allocate production across firms in just that way that minimizes the total costs of production. (You can find a discussion of this remarkable property in Modern Principles. See also this MRU video.)

One of the necessary conditions for this result is that firms must face the same input and output prices. If one firm is subsidized and another taxed, for example, then resources will be misallocated and total costs will increase. In a pioneering paper, Klenow and Hsieh measure misallocation across firms in China, India and the United States and they find that micro misallocations can have large, macroeconomic effects. In particular, if capital and labor were allocated as well in China and India as they are in the United States then output in those countries would double.

We can get some intuition for the costs of resource misallocation by looking at water in California. As you may have noticed at the grocery store, almonds are in demand right now whether raw or in almond milk. Asian demand for almonds is also up. As a result, in the last 10 years almond production in California has doubled. That’s great, except for the fact that almond production uses a huge amount of water and water in CA is severely mispriced and thus misallocated.

In my previous post, I pointed out that agriculture uses 80% of the water in California but accounts for less than 2% of the economy. So how much water does almond production alone use? More water is used in almond production than is used by all the residents and businesses of San Francisco and Los Angeles combined. Here’s a chart from Mother Jones:

(Aside: Some of this water is naturally recycled so net use is likely somewhat lower but a lot of water in California is now being pumped from the aquifer and that water isn’t being replenished.)

At the same time as farmers are watering their almonds, San Diego is investing in an energy-intensive billion-dollar desalination plant which will produce water at a much higher cost than the price the farmer are paying.  That is a massive and costly misallocation of water.

In short, we are spending thousands of dollars worth of water to grow hundreds of dollars worth of almonds and that is truly nuts.

Hat tip: Walter Olson.

China under Mao

by on March 26, 2015 at 2:37 am in Books, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

That is the new and excellent book by Andrew G. Walder.  Here is one excerpt:

The Communists’ contribution to the war effort was extremely modest.  According to a December 1944 Soviet Comintern report, a total of more than 1 million Nationalist troops had been killed in battle, compared to 103,186 in the CCP’s Eighth Route Army and another several thousand in the New Fourth Army.  The Communists suffered only 10 percent of total Chinese military casualties.  One author has called Mao’s famous doctrine of people’s war one of the “great myths” about the period: “people’s war was hardly used in the conflict against the Japanese.”

Definitely recommended.

China sentence of the day

by on March 25, 2015 at 2:59 pm in Current Affairs, Law | Permalink

It is also possible that the MEP [Ministry of Environmental Protection] will be given law enforcement authority for the first time, for example, the authority of forced inspection, search, sequestration, fines, recall and closure.

There is more here, a good and interesting piece by Wu Qiang on the changing politics of smog in China.

The problem of liens on Bitcoin

by on March 25, 2015 at 9:16 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

Izabella Kaminska writes:

George K Fogg at law firm Perkins Coie has been thinking about the problem of past claims (or liens) on bitcoins for nearly 14 months now.

His conclusion: under the United States’ UCC code (uniform commercial code) as long as bitcoins are treated as general intangibles, no high value investor can be sure that an angry Tony Soprano won’t show up one day to claim the bitcoins they thought they received in a completely unencumbered manner are in fact his. In fact, it’s only if and when Tony Soprano publicly renounces his claim to the underlying bitcoin collateral he is owed that the bitcoins stand a chance of being treated as unencumbered. Until then, a hot potato claim risk exists for every future acquirer of Soprano’s bitcoin.

Indeed, given the high volume of fraud and default in the bitcoin network, chances are most bitcoins have competing claims over them by now. Put another way, there are probably more people with legitimate claims over bitcoins than there are bitcoins [emphasis added]. And if they can prove the trail, they can make a legal case for reclamation.

This contrasts considerably with government cash. In the eyes of the UCC code, cash doesn’t take its claim history with it upon transfer. To the contrary, anyone who acquires cash starts off with a clean slate as far as previous claims are concerned. It is assumed, basically, that previous claims on cash are untraceable throughout the system. Though, liens it must be stressed can still be exercised over bank accounts or people.

There is more at the FT link here.  And I have a simple question for all you Bitcoin partisans out there: how large is the largest private sector transaction on Bitcoin to date?  I’m not “anti-Bitcoin,” and I am glad the regulators have allowed the experiment to proceed, still I’m not persuaded by the arguments that it is going to be a big deal.