Month: January 2020

The economic policy of Elizabeth Warren

Jerry Taylor has made some positive noises about her on Twitter lately, as had Will Wilkinson in earlier times.  I genuinely do not see the appeal here, not even for Democrats.  Let’s do a quick survey of some of her core views:

1. She wants to ban fracking through executive order.  This would enrich Russia and Saudi Arabia, harm the American economy ($3.5 trillion stock market gains from fracking), make our energy supply less green, and make our foreign policy more dependent on bad regimes and the Middle East.  It is perhaps the single worst policy idea I have heard this last year, and some of the worst possible politics for beating Trump in states such as Pennsylvania.

2. Her private equity plan.  Making private equity managers personally responsible for the debts of the companies they acquire probably would crush the sector.  The economic evidence on private equity is mostly quite positive.  Maybe she would eliminate the worst features of her plan, but can you imagine her saying on open camera that private equity is mostly good for the American economy?  I can’t.

3. Her farm plan.  It seems to be more nationalistic and protectionist and also more permanent than Trump’s, read here.

4. Her tax plan I: Some of the wealthy would see marginal rates above 100 percent.

5. Her tax plan II: Her proposed wealth tax would over time lead to rates of taxation on capital gains of at least 60 to 70 percent, much higher than any wealthy country ever has succeeded with.  And frankly no one has come close to rebutting the devastating critique from Larry Summers.

6. Student debt forgiveness:  The data-driven people I know on the left all admit this is welfare for the relatively well-off, rather than a truly egalitarian approach to poverty and opportunity.  Cost is estimated at $1.6 trillion, by the way (is trillion the new billion?).  Furthermore, what are the long-run effects on the higher education sector?  Do banks lend like crazy next time around, expecting to be bailed out by the government?  Or do banks cut back their lending, fearing a haircut on bailout number two?  I am genuinely not sure, but thinking the question through does not reassure me.

7. College free for all: Would wreck the relatively high quality of America’s state-run colleges and universities, which cover about 78 percent of all U.S. students and are the envy of other countries worldwide and furthermore a major source of American soft power.  Makes sense only if you are a Caplanian on higher ed., and furthermore like student debt forgiveness this plan isn’t that egalitarian, as many of the neediest don’t finish high school, do not wish to start college, cannot finish college, or already reject near-free local options for higher education, typically involving community colleges.

8. Health care policy: Her various takes on this, including the $52 trillion plan, are better thought of as (vacillating) political strategy than policy per se.  In any case, no matter what your view on health care policy she has botched it, and several other Dem candidates have a better track record in this area.  Even Paul Krugman insists that the Democrats should move away from single-payer purity.  It is hard to give her net positive points on this one, again no matter what your policy views on health care, or even no matter what her views may happen to be on a particular day.

All of my analysis, I should note, can be derived internal to Democratic Party economics, and it does not require any dose of libertarianism.

9. Breaking up the Big Tech companies: I am strongly opposed to this, and I view it as yet another attack/destruction on a leading and innovative American sector.  I will say this, though: unlike the rest of the list above, I know smart economists (and tech experts) who favor some version of the policy.  Still, I don’t see why Jerry and Will should like this promise so much.

Those are some pretty major sectors of the U.S. economy, it is not like making a few random mistakes with the regulation of toothpicks.  In fact they are the major sectors of the U.S. economy, and each and every one of them would take a big hit.

More generally, she seems to be a fan of instituting policies through executive order, a big minus in my view and probably for Jerry and Will as well?  Villainization and polarization are consistent themes in her rhetoric, and at this point it doesn’t seem her chances for either the nomination, or beating Trump, are strong in fact her conditional chance of victory is well below that of the other major Dem candidates.  So what really are you getting for all of these outbursts?

When I add all that up, she seems to have the worst economic and political policies of any candidate in my adult lifetime, with the possible exception of Bernie Sanders (whose views are often less detailed).

I do readily admit this: Warren is a genius at exciting the egalitarian and anti-business mood affiliation of our coastal media and academic elites.

If you would like to read defenses of Warren, here is Ezra Klein and here is Henry Farrell.  I think they both plausibly point to parts of the Warren program that might be good (more good for them than for me I should add, but still I can grasp the other arguments on her behalf).  They don’t much respond to the point that on #1-8, and possibly #1-9, she has the worst economic and political policies of any candidate in my adult lifetime.

For Jerry and Will, I just don’t see the attraction at all.

That said, on her foreign policy, which I have not spent much time with, she might be better, so of course you should consider the whole picture.  And quite possibly there are other candidates who, for other reasons, are worse yet, not hard to think of some.  Or you might wish to see a woman president.  Or you might think she would stir up “good discourse” on the issues you care about.  And I fully understand that most of the Warren agenda would not pass.

So I’m not trying to talk you out of supporting her!  Still, I would like to design and put into the public domain a small emoji, one that you could add to the bottom of your columns and tweets.  It would stand in for: “Yes I support her, but she has the worst proposed economic policies of any candidate in the adult lifetime of Tyler Cowen.”

Maybe local monopsony isn’t such a big problem

I’ve been pawing through this topic, and the best paper I can find does not villify recent trends in local monopsony power:

Using data from the Longitudinal Business Database and Form W-2, I document trends in local industrial concentration from 1976 through 2015 and estimate the effects of that concentration on earnings outcomes within and across demographic groups. Local industrial concentration has generally been declining throughout its distribution over that period, unlike national industrial concentration, which declined sharply in the early 1980s before increasing steadily to nearly its original level beginning around 1990. Estimates indicate that increased local concentration reduces earnings and increases inequality, but observed changes in concentration have been in the opposite direction, and the magnitude of these effects has been modest relative to broader trends; back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the 90/10 earnings ratio was about six percent lower and earnings were about one percent higher in 2015 than they would have been if local concentration were at its 1976 level. Within demographic subgroups, most experience mean earnings reductions and all experience increases in inequality. Estimates of the effects of concentration on earnings mobility are sensitive to specification.

That is from Kevin Rinz at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Saturday assorted links

1. On the history of Prohibition (NYT).

2. In contrast, I say museum dates are good (though brutally enforcing a separating equilibrium).

3. “I recently rewatched Season 1 [of Curb Your Enthusiasm] and some of Season 9 and was struck by how little difference the 17 years between them made.

4. WSJ chat with Ed Glaeser about economic problems facing young people.

5. “Many Amish are moving north, leaving their historic districts in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana for relatively cheap farmland in the deindustrializing Rust Belt and the prairie out west. This means they are farming colder, rockier ground and need plows that are stronger and more pliable. At the same time, different Amish communities have different sorts of religious proscriptions—some reject rubber wheels, for example, while others embrace them—so Pioneer offers roughly 90 different options.”  Link here (WSJ), from the new Adam Davidson book.

6. That was then, this is now, from a co-founder of Occupy Wall Street: “Rejecting Davos is easy when one hasn’t been invited. Now that I have a chance to go, I want to discover its revolutionary potential.”  (Not from The Onion.)

Scott Alexander and others on mental illness

Here is Scott’s response to Bryan Caplan’s response to Scott’s critique of Bryan’s earlier Szaszian paper on mental illness.  I can’t bring myself to do any serious recap, so I hope you care (or do I hope you don’t care?), in any case Scott serves up the links:

In 2006, Bryan Caplan wrote a critique of psychiatry. In 2015, I responded. Now it’s 2020, and Bryan has a counterargument.

Bryan rejects the concept of mental illness, believing that such individuals can be described using concepts from rational choice theory, most of all preferences and meta-preferences:

…this article argues that most mental illnesses are best modeled as extreme preferences, not constraining diseases.

Most lately, here is a snippet from Scott’s latest post:

Or what about respiratory tract infections that cause coughing? My impression is that, put a gun to my head, and I could keep myself from coughing, even when I really really felt like it. Coughing is a preference, not a constraint, and Bryan, to be consistent, would have to think of respiratory infections as just a preference for coughing…

Bryan’s preference vs. constraint model doesn’t just invalidate mental illness. It invalidates many (maybe most) physical illnesses! Even the ones it doesn’t invalidate may only get saved by some triviality we don’t care about – like how maybe you can lift less weight when you have the flu – and not by the symptoms that actually bother us.

I am fully on Scott’s side here, but I think he is being too literal in responding to Bryan’s arguments, taking on too much of Bryan’s turf.

The biggest problem with Bryan’s argument is this: let’s say you could redescribe say schizophrenia in terms of an unusual preference and other concepts from rational choice theory.  It would not follow that is all schizophrenia is.  For instance, a quick perusal of the literature shows that schizophrenic individuals may suffer from local processing deficits (moving too rapidly and too indiscriminately to global processing), working memory defects, inability to maintain attention, disorganized behavior, hypo- and hyper-excitability, excessive speculative ideation, excess receptivity to information from the right hemisphere of the brain, and delusions.

Of course that account is contested at some margins, as is typically the case in a research literature, but you get the point.  Schizophrenia could be some combination of an extreme preference, whatever else Bryan wishes to toss in, and some version of that list from the paragraph directly above.  Bryan works very hard to “rule in” his redescription of various mental illnesses, but he doesn’t and indeed cannot do much to rule out what are in fact the relevant cognitive or sometimes personality traits of the phenomenon in question.

And if you ask “Ah, what about the ‘normal’ people who claim that God is talking to them?”, well most of them have only a limited number of the features on that above list.  Some of course may in fact be schizophrenic or fall into the broader schizotypic category.  Those supposed reductios about the supposedly wacky religious people just don’t much dent the category of schizophrenia.  There might even be a correlation in the data between religious behavior and schizotypy — why not? — but the two are by no means cognitively identical.

Ask Bryan a simple question: do the individuals diagnosed as schizophrenia in fact have some combination of those traits listed above to an unusual degree?  If he answers “yes,” he has in fact conceded the argument.  If he answers “no,” he needs to counter a huge and established literature with empirics of his own, which of course he has not done.  The broader point is you cannot usually vanquish empirical categories with philosophical and methodological arguments alone.

I do partially side with Bryan only in one regard: I don’t find the term “mental illness” very useful, and very often it is misleading, or even dangerous, or used to restrict the liberties of individuals unjustly.  I very much prefer a more disaggregated approach, citing more exact information about a person’s condition, rather than applying a very general label in a manner that could end up being irresponsible.  It seems to me that a more disaggregated description is almost always possible, maybe always possible.

But you shouldn’t take that brand of skepticism as endorsing the kind of mono-conceptual straitjacket Bryan wishes to impose on this whole problem.

CEO pay in perspective how big is that rip-off anyway?

…the B-ratio I proposed here, measured as the CEO pay over the total payroll of the firm, relates CEO pay to the salary of each employee and may be the most relevant and informative figure on CEO pay as perceived by the firm’s employees themselves. How much a typical employee of the S&P500 firms implicitly “contributes” to the salary of his/her CEO? An amount of $273 on average or 0.5% of one’s salary, that is, one half of one percent on an individual salary basis.

That is from Marcel Boyer, via Alex T. and the mysterious v and Vincent Geloso.

The culture that is Brazil? (and Nazi Germany)

A video in which Brazil’s culture minister uses parts of a speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda boss, has sparked outrage.

In the clip posted on the ministry’s Twitter page, Roberto Alvim details an award for “heroic” and “national” art.

Lohengrin by Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, plays in the background.

Reacting to the controversy, Mr Alvim said the speech was a “rhetorical coincidence”. Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been urged to fire him.

Mr Bolsonaro, a former army captain with a conservative social agenda, has frequently accused Brazil’s artists and cultural productions including schoolbooks and movies of “left-wing bias”. He has not commented.

In the six-minute video detailing the National Arts Awards, Mr Alvim says: “The Brazilian art of the next decade will be heroic and will be national, will be endowed with great capacity for emotional involvement… deeply linked to the urgent aspirations of our people, or else it will be nothing.”

Parts of it are identical to a speech quoted in the book Joseph Goebbels: A Biography, by German historian Peter Longerich, who has written several works on the Holocaust.

Here is the full story.

What Does it Take to Open a Private School in Delhi?

Private schools in India teach a remarkable 30-40% of the population, especially among the urban poor. (See my 2013 paper, Private Education in India: A Novel Test of Cream Skimming for more.) But private schools have come under increasing pressure in recent years from government regulation.

Inspired by projects like Doing Business the Center for Civil Society in India did a detailed examination of what it takes to open a private school in Delhi. This excellent video describes the results:

Why isn’t downward competitive pressure on drug prices more effective?

Using current methods of inventing drugs, Borisy believes it will be possible to create new medicines that mimic the effects of existing big sellers, and bring them to market in a matter of years. Then EQRx will sell them to insurers and large hospital systems at a discount, displacing the innovators. Because its medicines will be cheaper to develop, EQRx will be able to make a handy profit despite these lower prices. The key question is whether health insurers and giant hospital systems have gotten desperate enough to want to shake up the system.

Quite simply, Borisy is going to invent and develop new drugs, and sell them for less money than the competition. He calls this “a radical proposition.” In any other sector, it would just be called “business.”

But the branded drug business is different, in part for structural reasons but also because people and doctors tend to be reticent to switch to a new medicine just because it’s cheaper. That has helped lead to dramatically higher prices.

Why, Borisy asks, have prices of, for instance, cancer drugs gone up eightfold over 20 years if the technology to make new medicines is steadily improving, and if we are, in fact, as he says, in “a golden age of biotech and pharmaceutical innovation”?

EQRx is his antidote. On Monday morning, the company is also announcing that it has raised $200 million from a bevy of top tech and biotech investors.

Over the next 10 years, Borisy said, he’d like for EQRx to start developing somewhere in the ballpark of 50 different experimental medicines. He wants the company to come out with its first medicine in five years, and to have 10 drugs within a decade.

Will this succeed?  Even if so, why did it take so long for this to happen?  The article offers this explanation:

There are multiple reasons creating a company like EQRx will be difficult. The idea of creating a “fast-follower” — a new drug that is much like an existing one — is anything but new. In fact, it has yielded some of the pharmaceutical industry’s biggest sellers. Lipitor followed several other cholesterol medicines to market, but became the best-selling drug in the world in the 2000s. Rheumatoid arthritis treatment Humira, the industry’s current best-seller, was introduced after two similar medicines, Remicade and Enbrel, were already on the market.

But fast-followers do not compete on price, because lowering price has not historically resulted in selling more units of a drug. Instead, the least successful medicine in a category will sometimes raise its price to make up for lost market share, and the best-sellers will often follow, raising their own prices.

Here is the full Matthew Herper piece, via Sarah Constantin.  Model this!

Thursday assorted links

What should I ask John McWhorter?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, with an associated public event.  Here is part of his Wikipedia profile:

John Hamilton McWhorter V…is an American academic and linguist who is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, where he teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. He is the author of a number of books on language and on race relations, and his writing has appeared in many prominent magazines. His research specializes on how creole languages form, and how language grammars change as the result of sociohistorical phenomena.

So what should I ask him?

And if you wish to register for February 17, here is the link.

What to make of the new U.S.-China trade deal?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The U.S. has established its seriousness as a counterweight to China, something lacking since it largely overlooked China’s various territorial encroachments in the 2010s. Whether in economics or foreign policy, China now can expect the U.S. to push back — a very different calculus. At a time when there is tension in North Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, that is potentially a significant gain.

…Currently the U.S. is working hard to keep Huawei equipment out of the forthcoming 5G networks in many countries. (Imagine letting the KGB run the American phone network in say 1980, and you can see what is at stake here.) For that campaign to succeed, even partially, the U.S. needs some credible threats of punishment, such as withholding intelligence or even defense protection from allies. The course of the trade war has made those threats more plausible. If you are Germany, and you see that the U.S. has been willing to confront the economic and military power of China directly, you will think twice about letting Huawei into your network.

A third set of possible benefits relates to the internal power dynamics in the Chinese Communist Party. For all the talk of his growing power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been having a good year. The situation in Hong Kong remains volatile, the election in Taiwan did not go the way the Chinese leadership had hoped, and now the trade war with America has ended, or perhaps more accurately paused, in ways that could limit China’s future expansion and international leverage. This trade deal takes Xi down a notch, not only because it imposes a lot of requirements on China, such as buying American goods, but because it shows China is susceptible to foreign threats.

The U.S. still is keeping $360 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods, hardly a propitious sign that China made a great bargain. There is even speculation that China will not report the full deal to its citizens…

It is a common argument that being tough with other countries strengthens the hard-liners in those countries. But in China the hard-liners had been growing in power and influence anyway. This trade war, and the resulting first phase of a trade deal, shows there is a cost to China for being so hard-line.

Do read the whole thing, and note that we still should be agnostic.  Nonetheless extreme TDS is preventing people from thinking rationally about this one, and thus I view my column as a correction to most of what you are seeing in MSM.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.


TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.


AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.


AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.


AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

Are the ex-royals good enough for Canada?

For example, many of the ways to get permanent residency in Canada require applicants to have specialized skills or high levels of education. Prince Harry trained as a military officer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but he does not have a university degree, which lawyers said would be a major stumbling block for him.

“I doubt very much they would apply for permanent residency,” said Sergio R. Karas, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. “That would not be a good option for them.”

From the sound of the NYT article by Ian Austen, they will likely enter as “visitors,” a status for which they do not need additional authoritzation.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Residential home services: “Our results show that more stringent licensing regulations are associated with less competition and higher prices but not with any improvement in customer satisfaction as measured by review ratings or the propensity to use the platform again.”

2. Philip Wallace on Andrew Yang.

3. The culture that is Louisiana.

4. The deepest hole we have dug.

5. Vincent Geloso on state capacity libertarianism.

6. Is Brazil tanking without daylight savings time?