Law

Symposium co-sponsored by the Mercatus Center:

Economists on the Welfare State and the Regulatory State: Why Don’t Any Argue in Favor of One and Against the Other?

The symposium Prologue suggests that among economists in the United States, on matters of the welfare state and the regulatory state, virtually none favors one while opposing the other. Such pattern is a common and intuitive impression, and is supported by scatterplots of survey data. But what explains the pattern? Why don’t some economists favor one and oppose the other?

Contributors address those questions:

Dean Baker:
Do Welfare State Liberals Also Love Regulation?

Andreas Bergh:
Yes, There Are Hayekian Welfare States (At Least in Theory)

Marjorie Griffin Cohen:
The Strange Career of Regulation in the Welfare State

Robert Higgs:
Two Ideological Ships Passing in the Night

Arnold Kling:
Differences in Opinion Among Economists About Government and Market Efficiency

Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt:
The Moral Narratives of Economists

Scott Sumner:
Moral Differences in Economics: Why Is the Left-Right Divide Widening?

Cass Sunstein:
Unhelpful Abstractions and the Standard View

The home page for the issue is here.

I wrote a short piece on this for Vox, here is one excerpt:

Who is the most influential public intellectual of the last 20 years?

This designation should go to someone who actually has helped change the world, rather than just changing lots of minds. It also should go to someone who has embodied key trends of the time, noting that for both standards I am focusing on the United States.

Based on those standards, I am inclined to pick Andrew Sullivan, who is most recently in the news for his announcement that he is quitting after fifteen years of blogging.

Any discussion of Sullivan’s influence must begin with gay marriage. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia already have legalized gay marriage, representing a majority of the American population, with possibly Alabama and others to follow. A broader Supreme Court decision for nationwide legalization may be on the way. More generally, gay rights have taken a major leap forward.

…I thought long and hard before selecting Andrew for the designation of most influential public intellectual. Perhaps Paul Krugman has changed more minds, but his agenda hasn’t much changed the world; we haven’t, for instance, gone back to do a bigger fiscal stimulus. Peter Singer led large numbers of people into vegetarianism and veganism and gave those practices philosophic respectability; he is second on my list. A generation ago, I would have picked Milton Friedman, for intellectual leadership in the direction of capitalist and pro-market reforms. But that is now long ago, and the Right has produced no natural successor.

Self-recommending!  And again, please note, you should not confuse the designation “most influential” with “the person who, I, the reader, would most like to see elevated in status.”  That would be a fallacy of mood affiliation.

Nonetheless it is considering tolerating them, as we are told by Air Genius Gary Leff.  Here is one short bit:

The tourism minister says that even though the Greek Prime Minister is attacking all-inclusive resorts as it identifies problems with the country’s economy, it has no plans to make crackdown on these properties ‘its mission’.

How reassuring.  Greece needs some Very Serious People in charge!  Right now it doesn’t have them.  And as you know, one thing worse than the Very Serious People is…the Not Very Serious People.  I think someone told them that all-inclusive resorts might drain off domestic aggregate demand (p.s. investment matters too, including for demand).

Oh, had I mentioned that tourism provides 15% of Greek gdp? (higher by some estimates, perhaps up to 20%).  I’m all for debt forgiveness in this context, but right now the Greeks need to get serious or they will tumble off the cliff and soon.

Each monastery had its own estates, and all the people farming on these estates paid taxes in money and goods.  One of the main tasks of the stewards was to increase this income; for instance, by lending grain back to the peasants at high interest rates, or selling goods at market.  Before the destruction of the monasteries in the 1960s, they owned as much as half of Tibet’s farmland.

The description however is referring to the 15th century.  Another interesting part of the book concerns how, during Tibet’s “Golden Age,” the Tibetans tried to impose their language and culture on the neighboring regions of China, and with some success.

That is all from Sam Van Schaik, Tibet: A History.

Mostly, yes, although with some caveats (the headline of the piece doesn’t exactly capture this).  That is the topic of my latest column for The Upshot.  Here is one excerpt:

Niclas Berggren…and Therese Nilsson…have produced a fascinating series of papers on these questions, sometimes writing singly, sometimes together or with the collaboration of a variety of co-authors. Their most notable study is perhaps a paper they wrote together, “Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance?

…One of their most striking findings is that societies characterized by greater economic freedom and greater wealth do indeed exhibit greater tolerance toward gay people, a tendency suggesting that gay rights, including gay marriage, will spread globally as national economies liberalize and develop.

Some metrics of economic freedom count more than others:

This greater tolerance is strongly associated only with certain features of what has often been defined as economic freedom. For example, a smaller government, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is often included in so-called economic freedom indexes as an objective measure of freedom. But the data show that smaller government has a slight negative correlation with tolerance of gay people by heterosexuals. One implication is that many conservatives may be overly preoccupied with the size of government as a measure of how free societies actually are.

On the other hand, the data shows that when a society has impressive scores on property rights security and low inflation — two other components of economic freedom indexes — these characteristics are strongly and positively correlated with tolerance of gays. It’s possible that low inflation, and the behavior of a central bank, are stand-ins for the general trustworthiness of a nation’s government and broader institutions, and such trustworthiness helps foster tolerance.

The results for race are not nearly as strong, namely both freedom and prosperity are less clearly associated with higher levels of racial tolerance, although the correlation is still a positive one.

And there is this:

We are often told that education is an important remedy, yet it does not register as a meaningful factor in the cross-country data in this paper. Higher levels of education simply have not correlated significantly with higher levels of tolerance across countries.

Do read the whole thing.

Kerin Hope from the FT reports:

A reluctance to pay taxes was much criticised by Greece’s creditors as one reason why the country needed a big international bailout. Now many Greeks are again avoiding the taxman as they bet the radical left Syriza party will quickly loosen fiscal policy if it comes to power in Sunday’s general election.

A finance ministry official confirmed on Friday that state revenues had collapsed this month. “It’s normal for the tax take to decline during an election campaign but this time it’s more noticeable,” the official said, avoiding any specific figures on the projected shortfall.

However, two private sector economists forecast the shortfall could exceed €1.5bn, or more than 40 per cent of projected revenues for January.

File under “In case you had not been paying attention…”  And here is Antonio Fatás with a Grexit scenario.  That is still not what most people expect, however.

The excellent Kevin Lewis has pointed my attention to this paper by Robertson, Yokum, Sheth, and Joiner:.  The idea will sound like common sense to an economist, namely give people some cash if they turn down special treatments of uncertain value.  The funnier thing is, there is now some evidence it might actually work:

Traditional cost sharing for health care is stymied by limited patient wealth. The “split benefit” is a new way to reduce consumption of high-cost, low-value treatments for which the risk/benefit ratio is uncertain. When a physician prescribes a costly unproven procedure, the insurer could pay a portion of the benefit directly to the patient, creating a decision opportunity for the patient. The insurer saves the remainder, unless the patient consumes. In this paper, a vignette-based randomized controlled experiment with 1,800 respondents sought to test the potential efficacy of the split benefit. The intervention reduced the odds of consumption by about half. It did so regardless of scenario (cancer or cardiac stent), type of split (rebate, prepay, or health savings account), or amount of split (US$5,000 or US$15,000). Respondents viewed the insurer that paid a split as behaving fairly, as it preserved access and choice. Three-quarters of respondents supported such use in Medicare, which did not depend on political party affiliation. The reform is promising for further testing since it has the potential to decrease spending on low-value interventions, and thereby increase the value of the health care dollar.

My concern of course is that on a larger scale eventually this would be gamed, and faux treatment offers will be generated for the purpose of transferring wealth to patients, with doctors and hospitals, one way or the other, in on the act.

Here is the latest:

It was not what Derek Nash expected to find in his 5-year-old’s school bag: A bill demanding a “no-show fee” for another child’s birthday party.

Nash said the bill from another parent sought 15.95 pounds ($24.00) because his son Alex had not attended the party at a ski center in Plymouth, southwest England.

Nash told the BBC on Monday he had initially accepted the party invitation, but later realized Alex was supposed to visit his grandparents that day. He said he did not have contact details to let the other family know.

The birthday boy’s mother, Julie Lawrence, told the BBC that her contact details were on the party invitation.

Nash says Lawrence has threatened him with small claims court but he has no plans so far to pay.

The link is here.  And here is yet another account.  I thank Drew for the pointer.

From a 2007 piece by Matheny and Leahy:

Campaigns directed toward pigs and cattle, however, could have a negative welfare effect by shifting consumption to poultry and fish products, which provide significantly less food per animal life-year. In fact, removing only poultry, eggs, and farmed fish from the diets of one hundred people would affect more animals than turning ninety-nine people vegan. If it is easier for consumers to shift consumption among animal products than to eschew all animal products, then this arithmetic has implications for both welfarist and abolitionist strategies.

That is from Natalie Cargill.  And the article is informative throughout.  You will note however that when it comes to environmental impact, red meat from the larger animals is typically the much larger problem.  So which do you care about more, animal welfare or the environment?  Or are you only willing to talk about margins where both improve?  By the way:

In the United States, there are only 220 veterinarians responsible for the care of more than nine billion farm animals.

In Foreign Affairs, James Bessen writes:

U.S. procurement programs worked so well in part because the Pentagon gave its business to a diverse group of private firms, including start-ups and university spinoffs such as Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies), one of the companies that helped develop the Internet. It also required contractors to share their technologies with universities and other private firms, encouraging further innovation outside the government. By contrast, France and the United Kingdom often used government contracts to promote national telephone and computer companies, and the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union limited the interaction between government researchers and their civilian counterparts, cutting off the private sector from high-tech advancements. The Pentagon also encouraged contractors to adopt open technical standards—such as the set of protocols, established in 1982, that specified how data should be packaged and transmitted on the Internet—which allowed knowledge to spread quickly and easily.

In the past few decades, however, procurement has strayed from this successful formula. Instead of awarding contracts to start-ups and spinoffs, the Pentagon has favored traditional defense contractors. The Defense Department tasks these contractors with meeting the military’s narrow needs and too often prohibits them from sharing their work with universities or other companies. An example from the past reveals how problematic such policies can be. In 1977, when the Pentagon sought to create high-speed semiconductor chips, Congress prohibited the contractors hired from sharing their research. University researchers were effectively excluded from the program, and chipmakers were forced to separate their defense work from their commercial operations. Unlike the government procurement programs in the 1950s and 1960s, which spawned many start-ups, this billion-dollar program did little to commercialize new technology.

The article offers other points of interest, mostly about how special interests have undermined entrepreneurship.  I have recently pre-ordered Bessen’s forthcoming book on this theme.

For the pointer I thank Spencer England.

Here is the abstract of a 1997 Peter Stella paper:

Central banks may operate perfectly well without capital as conventionally defined. A large negative net worth, however, is likely to compromise central bank independence and interfere with its ability to attain policy objectives. If society values an independent central bank capable of effectively implementing monetary policy, recapitalization may become essential. Proper accounting practice in determining central bank profit or loss and rules governing the transfer of the central bank`s operating result to the treasury are also important. A variety of country-specific central bank practices are reviewed to support the argument.

More concretely, I am not persuaded by the view that a kind of sheer internal commitment to good outcomes, however sincere, can sustain a peg or nominal target.  The outside world always impinges on the logic of commitment, and thus capital is required.  This is also why I do not agree with Scott Sumner’s claim that a truly credible Swiss target, eliminating the need to expand the SNB balance sheet to make it stick, is possible circa January 2015 or for that matter anytime soon.

I do not, however, see time inconsistency as the central problem.  More likely the government either just doesn’t want to take the specified action (e.g., Germany with higher inflation), or part of the government would like to do something but it doesn’t have enough political capital (Draghi at the ECB).  Time consistency models have some neat analytic properties but often they distract our attention from these more fundamental constraints.

The pointer is from Alen Mattich, a financial journalist who by the way has just published another detective novel, Heart of Hell.

He was one of the original builders of the GMU Law School, and an important founding scholar of law and economics, very sad news of course.

Addendum: David Henderson comments.

Claire Jones at the FT reports:

The European Central Bank is set to unveil a programme of mass bond buying next week to save the eurozone from deflation, but has bowed to German pressure to ensure that its taxpayers are not liable for any losses incurred on other countries’ debt.

This is not a surprise.  Alen Mattich had a good Twitter comment:

How could you trust ECB promise to “do whatever it takes” if it doesn’t accept the risk of holding national sov debt on its books?

Guntram B. Wolff has an excellent, detailed analysis, worth reading in full, here is one bit:

So the purely national purchase of national sovereign debt would either leave the private creditors as junior creditors, or the national central bank has to accept negative equity. What would negative equity mean for a central bank? De facto it would mean that the national central bank, that has created euros to buy government debt, would have lost the claim on the government. It would still owe the euros it has created to the rest of the Eurosystem.(4) The Eurosystem could now either ask the national central bank to return that liability, which it is unable to do without a recapitalisation of its government. Or, the Eurosystem could decide to leave the claim standing relative to the national central bank. In that case, the loss made on the sovereign debt would de facto have been transferred to the Eurosystem. In other words, the attempt to leave default risk with the national central bank will have failed.

…Overall, this discussion shows that monetary policy in the monetary union reaches the limits of feasibility if the principle of joint and several liability at the level of the Eurosystem is given up.

An important open issue is whether the ECB could buy Greek bonds, given that they are up for restructuring and (presumably) the Bank cannot voluntarily relieve Greece of any debt (see Wolff’s discussion).  There are plenty of rumors that Greece will indeed be excluded from any QE program, unless you imagine they settle things with the Troika rather more quickly than they are likely to.  Yet a bond-buying program without Hellenic participation doesn’t seem so far from hurling an “eurozone heraus!” painted brick through their front window in the middle of the night.

Overall, shuffling assets and risk profiles between national monetary authorities and national fiscal authorities would seem to accomplish…nothing.  Not buying up the debt of your biggest problem country also seems to accomplish nothing, in fact it is worth than doing nothing.

Here is my 2012 column on how the eurozone needs to agree on who is picking up the check.  They still haven’t agreed!  In the meantime, Grexit is a very real possibility, through deposit flight, no matter how badly Greek citizens may wish their country to stay in.

So, so far I am not so optimistic about this whole eurozone QE business, even though in principle I very much favor the idea.  It is again a case of politics getting in the way of a problem which does indeed have a (partial) economic solution.  The only way it (partially) works is if it (implicitly) bundles debt relief with higher rates of price inflation.  Have a nice day.

Ezra Klein has an excellent essay on this topic, reviewing the (very good) Philip Klein book.  Here is one bit:

Klein’s book is a service: it’s far and away the clearest, most detailed look at conservative health-policy thinking in the post-Obamacare world. But it can leave a reader with the impression that the important cleavages in conservative health-policy thinking are between the Replacers, the Reformists, and the Restarters.

It’s not. It’s between those in the party who want to prioritize health reform and those who don’t. And it’s worth being clear: those who don’t have a case. Health reform is an incredibly tough, painful project. Everything you do has tradeoffs, some of them awful.

And to sum up, the Democrats really cared about health care reform (for better or worse), but:

…that’s really the problem for conservative health reformers. For all the plans floating around, there’s little evidence Republicans care enough about health reform to pay its cost.

I am less positive on Obamacare than is Ezra, but still the piece is interesting throughout and a good challenge to would-be reformers.

Paul Krugman writes:

Two things to bear in mind. First, having in effect thrown away its credibility – in today’s world, the crucial credibility central banks need involves, not willingness to take away the punch bowl, but willingness to keep pushing liquor on an abstemious crowd – it’s hard to see how the SNB can get it back. Second, there will be spillovers: the SNB’s wimp-out will make life harder for monetary policy in other countries, because it will leave markets skeptical about whether other supposed commitments to keep up unconventional policy will similarly prove time-limited.

Brad DeLong and Scott Sumner agree the Swiss move was a bad idea.  We’re all in accord on the economics (more or less), but I am more interested in a different question.  The Swiss central bank, had it continued the peg, probably would have had a balance sheet larger than Swiss gdp.  But does this matter?  Should anyone care?  Or does that make them “too big a guy on the block”?

I see two views of the world running around in these discussions, but not always articulated as such:

1. Bureaucrats, which includes central bankers, are not so much budget maximizers as hoarders of institutional capital.  They hoard institutional capital when they should be spending it down, in the interests of the broader polity.  So this is a public choice problem, rather than a matter of macroeconomic ignorance.  When it comes to macroeconomics, we need institutional reforms which induce them or maybe even require them to spend down this capital, come what may for their personal levels of political influence.

2. Bureaucrats hoard and indeed extend institutional capital because they know how important it is to maintain the quality of significant institutions, such as central banks.  Without such capital , semi-independent central banks would soon cease to exist, to the detriment of us all.  Outside academics, however, rarely can see the importance of this factor, because they have less experience running political institutions.  When smart central bankers — which yes includes the Swiss — are apparently doing the wrong thing, it is because they are seeing more variables of the problem than we are.  They either cannot do “the right thing,” or doing that would be too costly in terms of the country’s longer-term institutional prospects.

By the way, there is also #3, which I do not find credible:

3. The Swiss central bankers suddenly became stupid and forgot their macroeconomics.

I agree there is plenty of #1 out there, maybe for Switzerland too.  But I’d like to see more debate of #1 vs. #2, because I don’t think the Swiss central bankers — praised extravagantly by many of us not too long ago — simply would tank their economy for no good reason at all.

Addendum: Here is Dean Baker’s dissent, although I think the stock market does not agree.  And Scott Sumner comments, he seems to opt for #3.  Here are useful comments from the FT.