Month: July 2014

The real import of the Jon Gruber fracas

It would be much easier if (some) people would simply say “Of course this normally should be kicked back into the legislature for clarification.  But I don’t want to do that because I don’t regard Republican control of the House, and how that control is used, as a legitimate form of rule.”  One may agree, or not, but the nature of the case is pretty clear.

Instead we read irrelevant blog posts and tweets about how the experts meant to have subsidies at all levels all along.  Of course they did.  But did Congress know what it was doing in a detailed sense, one way or another?  Hard to say, personally I doubt it, and Alex says no.  The basic starter hypothesis here is that many of them knew this was a health care bill, it would extend coverage, it had a mandate, it had some subsidies, it had a Medicaid expansion, it had some complicated cost control, it was approved by leading Democratic Party experts, it met some CBO standards, and beyond that — if you pull out those who were confused on the details of the exchanges and the subsidies do you still have majority support?  I doubt it.  Most absurd of all are the tweets asking the critics to show Congress intended no federal-level subsidies.

So, to return to the title of this post, the import of the Gruber fracas is to show that if he can be confused (more than once, at that, and is “confused” even the right word?) a lot of ACA supporters in Congress probably were confused too.

So given that across-the-board subsidies are not written into the bill formally, and given the importance of precedent, and rule of law, why not kick the matter back into the legislature for redrafting?  Which brings us back to the first paragraph of this blog post…

I have drawn on some Ross Douthat tweets in thinking through this post.

Insurance markets in everything

But there is one type of insurance that people buy to protect them from the consequences of unusually good luck: In Japan, the U.K., and, to a lesser extent, around the world, golfers buy insurance to protect themselves from the potentially bankrupting consequences of sinking a hole in one.

The concept of hole in one insurance may baffle the uninitiated, but to many it is a wise precaution as golf tradition holds that anyone who scores a hole in one should buy drinks back at the clubhouse for his playing group — if not everyone present. In Japan, many give extravagant gifts to friends and family after scoring a lucky ace.

And indeed there is such an institution:

A number of firms offer hole in one insurance, frequently bundled with other services that golfers commonly buy like insurance for golfing equipment or personal liability. (Apparently yelling “Fore!” can’t ward off lawsuits if you hit a ball right at someone.) Golfplan, a U.K. insurer, covers $340 to $510 worth of drinks for hole in one celebrations. (Clubs’ set of rules for validating a hole in one makes it easier to process claims.) When it is sold unbundled, hole in one insurance can be cheap; Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co. Ltd offers Japanese golfers hole in one insurance for as little as a $3 premium. Outside of individual policies, golf tournaments also get hole in one insurance so that they can offer huge cash prizes for a hole in one as a marketing promotion — it’s the same type of “prize indemnity” insurance that covers teams when a fan sinks a half court shot or makes a field goal.

In the United States, where the custom is less firmly established, golf forums are filled with debate about what tradition demands. Some clubs have written the tradition into their rules. The New York Times notes that the membership dues at one San Francisco club include covering $250 worth of drinks to celebrate any hole in one, while a similar system at a club in Bremerton, Washington, gives pro shop and food and beverage credit to the lucky golfer — it’s up to him or her to share.

The full story is here, hat tip goes to Michael Rosenwald.  I wonder how many people buy this insurance simply to convince themselves (falsely) that they have some chance of making a hole in one.

Sheila Bair is worried about reverse repo

Like much of her commentary, I find this considerably overstated.  Still, it suggests a few points of interest and also concern:

The mere existence of this facility could exacerbate liquidity runs during times of market stress. Borrowers in the short-term debt markets will have to compete with it for investment dollars and all, to varying degrees, will be viewed as higher risk than lending to the Fed. Even a relatively minor market event could encourage a massive flow of funds to the Fed while contributing to a flow away from other short-term borrowers.

Nonfinancial companies could find themselves unable to find buyers for their commercial paper. Banks could confront a sudden outflow of deposits, particularly those which are uninsured. Even the U.S. Treasury—traditionally viewed as the safest harbor—could see its borrowing costs spike as investors decide that the Fed is even safer.

Ironically, faced with a more acute liquidity crisis, the Fed would likely have to use the funds it is borrowing through reverse repos to provide a lifeline to the very markets that suffered. For investors seeking safety, the Fed would become the borrower of first resort. For borrowers affected by the resulting diversion of funding, the Fed would become the backstop lender.

The reverse repurchase facility also seems to be at cross-purposes with Congress’s efforts to contain the government safety net. After many years of consideration, Congress in 2008 reluctantly gave the Fed authority to pay banks interest on the money they keep on deposit with it. The reverse repurchase facility essentially gives large nonbank financial institutions the routine ability to place money in the functional equivalent of an overnight deposit with the Fed and receive interest.

In December 2012 Congress allowed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s crisis-era program to provide unlimited guarantees for non-interest-bearing transaction accounts—such as those used by businesses and local governments to process payroll and other expenses—to lapse. So the Transaction Account Guarantee Program is dead—but the Fed’s reverse repurchase facility enables large nonbank financial institutions to obtain explicit government backing for billions placed with the Fed, but without the burdens of deposit insurance premiums and the kind of prudential supervision that applies to banks.

The full WSJ Op-Ed is here.

Assorted links

1. The London pheromone party.

2. Get paid (a little) for Facebook posts.

3. “Both studies revealed similar patterns of relations between trolling and the Dark Tetrad of personality: trolling correlated positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, using both enjoyment ratings and identity scores. Of all personality measures, sadism showed the most robust associations with trolling and, importantly, the relationship was specific to trolling behavior.”  Link here.

4. Do you value more what you choose yourself?

5. Claims about the pricing of cocktails.  And do you value more what you choose yourself?

6. The life of Vladimir Putin.  Good coverage.

The Idea of Congressional Intent is Incoherent

Now seems like an apposite time to remember, Congress intends no more than Congress smiles. As Ken Shepsle put it in his classic paper Congress is a “They,” not an “It”:

Legislative intent is an internally inconsistent, self-contradictory expression. Therefore, it has no meaning. To claim otherwise is to entertain a myth (the existence of a Rousseauian great law giver) or commit a fallacy (the false personification of a collectivity). In either instance, it provides a very insecure foundation for statutory interpretation.

Shepsle’s point is that Arrow’s impossibility theorem shows that not only do collectives not have preferences they can’t even be understood as if they had preferences. As I wrote earlier:

Suppose that a person is rational and that we observe their choices. After some time we will come to understand their choices in terms of their underlying preferences (assume stability–this is a thought experiment).  We will be able to say, “Ah, I see what this person wants. I understand now why they are choosing in the way that they do.  If I were them, I would choose in the same way.”

Arrow showed that when a group chooses, there are no underlying preferences to uncover–not even in theory. In one sense, the theorem is trivial. We know or should always have known that a group doesn’t have preferences anymore than a group smiles. What Arrow showed, however, is that without invoking special cases we can’t even rationalize group choices as if leviathan had preferences.

Put differently, if we do try to rationalize a leviathan with preferences and intention we will find that such a leviathian has the preferences and intention of a madman. Quoting Shepsle again:

…the Hart and Sacks (1958) notion that legislation should be treated as the result of “reasonable people pursuing reasonable purposes reasonably” is insufficient. Even if we do adopt this posture, even if legislators are the kinds
of reasonable people Hart and Sacks envision, it is still fruitless to attribute intent to
the product of their collective efforts. Individual intents, even if they are unambiguous,
do not add up like vectors. That is the content of Arrow; that is the malady of
majority rule….

…The courts cannot defer to something that is nonsense.

By the way, if legislative intent was nonsense in 1992 when Shepsle wrote, then today, when Congress is more divided than ever, it is nonsense on stilts.

Addendum: Zywicki and Stearn’s excellent book, Public Choice Concepts and Applications in Law has a good discussion of the issue and some of the alternative methods of interpreting a statute. One might begin with Holmes statement, “We do not inquire what the legislature meant; we ask only what the statutes mean.”

The Paul Ryan anti-poverty plan

The Ryan plan is here (pdf), an NYT summary is here. Overall it’s pretty good.  It attacks excess incarceration and occupational licensing and regressive regulations, three issues where a serious dialogue is badly needed.  It makes a good attempt to limit the incentives for lower-income people not to work.  It’s better than what the Left is turning out for the first time in…how long?

I’m not crazy about the complicated plan to monitor the lives of the poor in more detail (“…work with families to design a customized life plan to provide a structured roadmap out of poverty.”)  And my biggest conceptual objection is the heavy stress on block grants and letting the states figure things out.  I’m not opposed to that in principle, and I might even favor it, but I think it’s often the lazy man’s way of avoiding talk about difficult trade-offs.  I’d like to see a possible plan for just a single state, or better yet two or three, that is supposed to represent an improvement.  That shouldn’t be too hard to do, or if it is maybe the states can’t do it either.  It’s not as if fifty states are giving us a market-based discovery process, as the rhetoric sometimes implies.  Furthermore we have a bunch of large states with ongoing bad governance, such as CA, NY, and IL, and maybe the federal government really can do better for those places.

Here is Vox on the regulation side of the plan.  Kevin Drum offers comment.  Ross Douthat mostly likes it.  Jared Bernstein doesn’t like it.  Robert Greenstein is critical.  Here is Neil Irwin.  And Annie Lowrey.  And Josh Barro.  And Yuval Levin.  And Ezra Klein.  Other people have opinions about it, too.  Or so I am led to believe.

How to get paid to drop out of races (markets in everything)

…they all had help in the early going from Matt Scherer. Scherer is, or was up until about a week ago, a professional track pacer, one of only a handful of people worldwide who used his speed and finely honed sense of time to help other people run fast. Though he started out as a competitive runner, his resume is filled with other runners’ accomplishments.

Pacers, or rabbits as they’re sometimes called (thus the bunny photo loop on his website), are frequently used in track races of 800 meters and longer to standardize the early laps and facilitate lively competition and fast times. Their job is to accurately lead through the first lap or 600 meters in a very specific time, getting the field off to a good start before stepping off the track, in anonymity. The pacer is a visual embodiment of time. Other runners in the field can easily judge their pace by how close they are to the rabbit. In recent years, almost every middle distance and distance world record was set with the help of a pacer. They’re not allowed in World Championship or Olympic competitions, which may account for the few world record performances at those events.

The full story is here, interesting throughout, and for the pointer I thank Michael Cohen.

Jonathan Gruber describes Obamacare, circa 2012

What’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits — but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying [to] your citizens you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges.

There is more detail here, from Peter Suderman, along with the video and also the fuller context for those (such as myself) who have not been following this issue very closely.

In which countries do social norms spread more rapidly?

There is a new piece of interest in Technology Review, here is one excerpt:

Psychologists have always assumed that patterns of behavior change more quickly in countries that emphasize collectivism. Once an idea has taken hold, the pressure to conform means it spreads rapidly. “It has previously been argued that social support mechanisms in collectivistic societies make it more likely that a person will stop smoking,” say Lang and co.

And conversely, in countries that emphasize individualism, patterns of behavior must change more slowly because there is less social pressure to conform.

The puzzle is that the data on smoking shows exactly the reverse. Sweden was much slower to adopt smoking and much slower to stop.

Now Lang and co think they know why. They’ve created a mathematical model that includes the effects of social pressure allowing them to simulate the way behavior spreads through societies with different levels of individualism.

The model reveals why Sweden stopped smoking more slowly. “Our model suggests that … social inertia will inhibit decisions to stop smoking more strongly in collectivistic societies than in individualistic societies,” say Lang and co.

The original research, by Lang, Abrams, and De Sterck is here.  Their results do not rest on Sweden alone, but for the record I consider the Swedes to be relatively individualistic by most metrics, most of all when it comes to atomization.

Woodford on QE

Interesting interview by David Andolfatto of Michael Woodford. Woodford is skeptical of QE.


You talk about Fed purchases of risky assets. I mean, do you have in mind some loose connection of the Fed’s purchase of the mortgage-backed securities, the agency debt?


I think that the main argument that’s been made for the desirability of the Fed asset purchases relies upon the idea that certain types of risk are going to be taken onto the Fed’s balance sheet, and the claim that taking those types of risk out of the portfolios that people in the private sector have to hold is going to make a difference for the pricing of risk in the economy. And so the whole idea that you’re concentrating certain kinds of risks on the balance sheet of the central bank, I think, is entirely the theory behind what’s going on. It’s not just an accidental effect.

And so then you have to ask: What do you think that does? And I think it’s a mistake to say, well, the central bank just takes the risk away. It doesn’t take it away. It can affect who is, in fact, going to bear the risk, because essentially it means that a public institution is taking on the risk, and that means that taxpayers as a group are going to have no choice about bearing that kind of risk. And the question is whether you think that concentrating the risks in that way is facilitating an allocation of risk that was, in fact, desirable and that the markets would have been achieving themselves through voluntary trades if financial constraints hadn’t been impeding it, or whether you’re bringing about an allocation of risk that people would have liked to trade away from if financial constraints weren’t keeping them from doing it. And you’re pushing them even further into a corner they don’t want to be in.

Are siblings obsessed with moral hazard?

In most Darwinian models there is competition across siblings for resources and parental attention, from the womb but also stretching into adulthood.  Siblings who do well therefore will be hyper-aware of the strategies employed by their brothers and sisters.  They will need to counter those strategies on a very regular basis and furthermore they will on average be deploying similar strategies themselves.

At the same time, siblings probably won’t see each other as so evil by nature.  They will be realistic about motives — some would say cynical — while at the same time recognizing that the siblings are probably, on average, no worse than themselves.  Plus there is a natural genetic and also family affinity.

How about mothers?  Genetically speaking, mothers often adopt the interests of the sibling as “their own.”  For instance a lot of mothers died in childbirth before modern medicine, when alternative biological arrangements would have given the mothers greater protection.  So the children can commandeer the loyalty of the mother (and sometimes the father) more readily than they can commandeer the loyalties of their siblings.

Mothers are therefore often deceived about or simply tolerant of the manipulations employed by their children on them.  In other words, mothers worry less about moral hazard problems with respect to their children.  The siblings will in some respects understand these strategies better than the mother will.

The other children may feel that a mother should punish (or possibly but less likely reward) the other siblings more.  And “Johnny is being a stinker” will be a more frequent complaint than “Johnny is possessed with Original Sin.”

In turn, mothers may worry more about problems of type.  If a mother is hyper-aware of the faults of her children, she may do a better job of protecting them or teaching them how to overcome those limitations.

A world where fewer people have siblings may be a world where recognizing moral hazard problems may be for many people less intuitive.  Is it also possible that men may on average be more aware of moral hazard problems than are women?  And women more aware of problems of type?

*Anarchy Unbound*

The author of this new and excellent book is my colleague Peter T. Leeson and the subtitle is Why Self-Governance Works Better Than You Think.  Here is one excerpt:

Twenty-two of thirty-seven street gangs Jankowski (1991: 78-82) studied have written constitutions.  Sicilian Mafiosi follow a largely unwritten code of rules, and recently police found a written set of “ten commandments” outlining the Mafia’s core laws…Kaminski (2004) identifies extensive (yet unwritten) rules dictating nearly every aspect of Polish prisoners’ lives, from what words are acceptable to use in greeting a stranger to how and when to use the bathroom.  And the National Gang Crime Research Center considers constitutions so central to criminal societies that the use of a constitution is one of the defining characteristics it uses when classifying gangs…

Peter of course does not favor criminal gangs, rather he seeks social principles for voluntarism and yes perhaps you could call these views a kind of anarchism.  My stance, however, differs from his.

I accept the reductionist argument that government too is a kind of anarchy, since it must rely on norms and internally polycentric and perhaps even ultimately intransitive mechanisms for maintaining order.  There is no “final court of authority” in the practical sense, but rather a series of overlapping constraints which give rise to a spontaneous order of rules and governance, for better or worse.  In this sense anarchy is not an absurd idea at all, and we can imagine many varieties of orderly anarchy, including those in a more libertarian direction.  That said, while I often favor smaller government, when it comes to political philosophy I do not seek to move toward “more anarchy.”  In fact I often admire the relatively centralized governmental structures of Great Britain and New Zealand, with their clean and sharp lines of accountability.

I think modern anarchy would indeed be “orderly,” but I also think that private protection agencies would end up colluding and re-evolving into a form of coercive government (pdf), furthermore in a form that libertarians would find objectionable.  I would much rather have the West’s current democratic governments, for all their imperfections, than a for-profit “shareholder state,” not to mention the transition costs and the uncertainties along the way.  The best thing you can say about a shareholder state is that it might have a better immigration policy.  In the meantime, we are seeking to rebuild the history we have.

The new French food regulations (“fait maison”) are poorly designed

Elaine Sciolino is pretty critical.  She writes:

A new consumer protection law meant to inform diners whether their meals are freshly prepared in the kitchen or fabricated somewhere off-site is comprehensive, precise, well intentioned — and, to hear the complaints about it, half-baked.

Public decree No. 2014-797, drafted and passed by the French Parliament and approved by the prime minister, went into effect last week. It allows restaurateurs to use the logo if they have resisted the increasing temptation to buy ready-made dishes from industrial producers, pop them in the microwave and pass them off as culinary artistry.

It doesn’t seem to be working to encourage quality:

French fries, for instance, can bear the “fait maison” symbol if they are precut somewhere else, but not if they are frozen. Participating chefs are allowed to buy a ready-made pâte feuilletée, a difficult-to-make, multilayered puff pastry, but pâte brise, a rich pastry dough used to make flaky tart shells, has to be made on-site. Cured sausages and smoked hams are acceptable, while ready-made terrines and pâtés are not.

…Périco Légasse, a food critic for the weekly magazine Marianne, wrote: “ ‘Homemade’ doesn’t mean freshly made. A dish totally prepared with frozen products, even if they come from a Romanian slaughterhouse, can enjoy this happy distinction as it was cooked on-site.”

Mark Bittman piles on.  I would stress there is no substitute for consumers who demand the right kind of food and who otherwise won’t buy it.