Streetcars, Subways and Segregation

In the NBER reporter, Allison Shertzer and Randall P. Walsh summarize some of the recent research on urban segregation. As a cause of early 20th century segregation, Shertzer and Walsh put somewhat more weight on white flight and local land use regulations and somewhat less on redlining and discrimination by the Federal government (although all causes were important).

One point which I had not previously considered is that technology interacted in important but unintended ways with preferences for segregation:

We hypothesize that public transportation was critical for the acceleration of white flight because streetcars and subways significantly reduced the cost of living further away from employment centers. Household preferences for racial composition could have interacted with municipal infrastructure investments to increase residential segregation. Such a finding would further underscore the lesson that policies that were race-neutral on their face likely contributed to the development of segregated cities.

Dematerialization: Humanity’s Biggest Surprise

Andrew McAfee argues that the Earth Day environmentalists correctly diagnosed the problem, a worsening environment, but were wrong about the solution, degrowth. In fact, the drive to reduce costs by making better use of resources has led to a dramatic decrease in resource use even as production has increased, a dematerialization. Poverty not prosperity is the enemy of the environment.

I love this talk for many reasons not the least of which is that Andrew has put all his data online.

 

The Nanny Tax and the Miracle of Government Loaves

Before it descends into utter madness, Leslie Forde’s Slate article on Nanny pay opens with a good story:

“I’m sorry … but I can’t,” she told me over the phone. My heart sank. I was confident she’d take the job. Quickly, I went into negotiation mode, “But wait, can we talk about the pay? Do you need more to … ” She said no before I could finish. “I just can’t take a job (that pays) over the table. It’ll mess up my housing. I won’t be able to stay in my apartment. I’m sorry. I’ve already taken another job.” I ended the call. …my entire career was at risk because I couldn’t find a nanny—at least, one willing to be paid legally.

It’s estimated that less than 10 percent of 2 million domestic workers and the families who employ them pay employment taxes.

From that opening I was expecting the author to explain that nannies aren’t willing to work on the books because at the bottom of the income scale income is taxed twice–first by Federal and State direct taxes and second indirectly because higher income causes workers to lose benefits. As a result of this double taxation, in some states it’s possible for poor workers to face effective marginal tax rates above 100 percent. If you had to pay to work, would you work?

High marginal taxes rates on the poor are a problem. We ought to be able to agree on that, even if we disagree on proposals to address the problem such as a universal basic income or a negative income tax. But in Forde’s magical world, up is down and down is up and the problem is that taxes on the poor are too low. But not to worry because this presents a hidden opportunity!

There is, however, a hidden opportunity to provide help to our caregivers and the families who employ them. Right now, these under-the-table arrangements are creating a “tax gap”—billions of dollars in additional funding that would be available to support caregivers, if the majority of families and their caregivers paid into the system.

Did you get that? If nannies were taxed the government would have more money to provide nannies with benefits. Wait, it gets worse. According to Forde, we can make both families and nannies better off by giving them back the money the government takes and still have money left over!

The estimated “gap” from the lost tax revenue is a combination of the federal and state employment taxes typically paid by employees (Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes) and employers (in addition to Social Security and Medicare, they must pay federal and state unemployment taxes.) Imagine if just a portion of this revenue were used to reimburse families for more of their child care expenses and to provide caregivers access to better benefits than they get currently with their under-the-table jobs. (italics added, AT)

Indeed, wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world of pure imagination? One without tradeoffs. Where we could rely on the miracle of government loaves to solve all problems?

Money for Blood is Good for All

The Economist: For years [Barzin Bahardoust] has been trying to pay Canadians for their blood plasma—the viscous straw-coloured liquid in blood that has remarkable therapeutic powers. When his firm, Canadian Plasma Resources (CPR), tried to open clinics in Ontario in 2014, a campaign by local activists led to a ban by the provincial government on paid plasma collection. Undeterred, he tried another province, Alberta—which also banned the practice last year. Then, on April 26th, when CPR announced a planned centre in British Columbia, its government said it too was considering similar legislation. CPR has managed to open two centres, in far-flung Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Even these have faced opposition.

The global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone. Global plasma exports were worth $126bn in 2016—more than exports of aeroplanes.

…Only countries that pay for plasma are self-sufficient in it. (Italy, where donors are given time off work, is close to self-sufficiency.) Half of America’s plasma is shipped to Europe—20m contributions-worth. Canada imports 80% of its plasma products from America. Australia imports 40% of its plasma products, too.

It’s a very odd “ethical policy” that leads Canadian provinces to ban paying Canadians for plasma but then import paid plasma from the United States. I am one of the signatories (along with Al Roth, Vernon Smith and Gerald Dworkin among others) of a letter that argues for the efficiency and ethics of allowing compensation for blood plasma donation. The Economist riffs of this letter in a very good op-ed:

The aversion to paid plasma rests on three reasonable-sounding but largely groundless propositions. The first is that it is unsafe. Payment might encourage donors to conceal dangerous behaviour—such as intravenous drug use. In the 1980s and 1990s, tainted blood products infected half the world’s haemophiliacs with HIV, along with tens of thousands of plasma donors in China. But modern plasma products do not carry such risks. They are heat-treated and bathed in chemicals to sanitise them (an impossibility for blood for transfusion). Since the adoption of these techniques there has not been a single case of transmission of HIV or hepatitis via plasma products. Doctors agree that plasma products from paid donors are just as safe as those from unpaid ones.

A second argument is that, if people are paid for their plasma, fewer will volunteer to donate whole blood for transfusions. (Paying for whole blood would be unwise, since it cannot be sterilised as plasma can.) But there is no evidence that paying for plasma diminishes the supply of donated blood. That is why, in Canada, more than 30 economists and philosophers wrote an open letter arguing against bans on paid plasma. Americans voluntarily donate as much blood per person as do Canadians.

A third argument is that paying for plasma preys on the poor. It is possible that those selling plasma need the money and therefore might give too often. In America plasma donors can give twice a week; those in Europe can give just once a week. There is no evidence of harm to their health in either case, but more long-term study would be prudent.

Those against allowing payment suggest using voluntary donors instead. Yet every country that does not pay ends up importing plasma. And the fact that America is by far the dominant supplier carries risks of its own. The dependence on a single source leaves the rest of the world vulnerable to an interruption of supply. To protect their people, therefore, other governments need to diversify their supplies of plasma. Paying for it would make a big difference.

Counterterrorism Spending

The Stimson group has a new report on counterterrorism spending:

In the summer of 2017, the Stimson Center convened a nonpartisan study group to provide an initial tally of total CT spending since 9/11, to examine gaps in the understanding of CT spending, and to offer recommendations for improving U.S. government efforts to account for these expenditures. Stimson’s research suggests that total spending that has been characterized as CT-related – including expenditures for government wide homeland security efforts, international programs, and the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria – totaled $2.8 trillion during fiscal years 2002 through 2017. According to the group’s research, annual CT spending peaked at $260 billion in 2008 at the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This represents a 16-fold increase over the 2001 total. In 2017, as war funding declined, total CT spending amounted to $175 billion, nearly an 11-fold increase from the 2001 level.

With this growth, CT spending has become a substantial component of total discretionary spending for programs across a wide range of areas, including defense, education, and medical research. Of $18 trillion in discretionary spending between fiscal years 2002-2017, CT spending made up nearly 15 percent of the whole. At its peak in 2008, CT spending amounted to 22 percent of total discretionary spending. By 2017, CT spending had fallen to 14 percent of the total. Despite this drop, the study group found no indication that CT spending is likely to continue to decline.

Counterterrorism spending is thus about $1280 per US household every year–that’s affordable but still a lot for what we get, which is very unclear.

Rooftop Solar is Expensive and Inefficient

Noted UC Berkeley energy economist Severein Borenstein writes against the proposal to make solar required on all new residential construction:

Dear Commissioner Weisenmiller:

I just became aware in the last few days of the proposal in the new building energy efficiency standards rule making to mandate rooftop solar on all new residential buildings. I want to urge you not to adopt the standard. I, along with the vast majority of energy economist, believe that residential rooftop solar is a much more expensive way to move towards renewable energy than larger solar and wind installations. The savings calculated for the households are based on residential electricity rates that are far above the actual cost of providing incremental energy, so embody a large cross subsidy from other ratepayers. This would be a very expensive way to expand renewables and would not be a cost-effective practice that other states and countries could adopt to reduce their own greenhouse gas footprints.

Because I, and most other economists studying California’s energy policy, just became aware of this proposal, we have not had time to participate in the policy process or write public documents on the subject. At the least, I would urge you to delay adopting such a rule until independent analysis from energy experts can be made part of the record.

I will add that I have no financial interest in any energy company. I am expr essing my views purely in the interestof moving forward with California’s fight against climate change in a cost-effective way that can be exported to other states and countries.

Sincerely, Severin Borenstein

I agree and would add that allowing more building near transit and other hubs as with California’s rejected SB827 would not only lower housing prices, rather than raise them as with this proposal, it would also be a much better way of reducing carbon emissions and saving energy.

Google Bans Bail Bond Ads, Invites Regulation

Google: Today, we’re announcing a new policy to prohibit ads that promote bail bond services from our platforms. Studies show that for-profit bail bond providers make most of their revenue from communities of color and low income neighborhoods when they are at their most vulnerable, including through opaque financing offers that can keep people in debt for months or years.

Google’s decision to ban ads from bail bond providers is deeply disturbing and wrongheaded. Bail bonds are a legal service. Indeed, they are a necessary service for the legal system to function. It’s not surprising that bail bonds are used in communities of color and low income neighborhoods because it is in those neighborhoods that people most need to raise bail. We need not debate whether that is due to greater rates of crime or greater discrimination or both. Whatever the cause, preventing advertising doesn’t reduce the need to pay bail it simply makes it harder to find a lender. Restrictions on advertising in the bail industry, as elsewhere, are also likely to reduce competition and raise prices. Both of these effects mean that more people will find themselves in jail for longer.

As with any industry, there are bad players in the bail bond industry but in my experience the large majority of providers go well beyond lending money to providing much needed services to help people navigate the complex, confusing and intimidating legal system. Sociologist Joshua Page worked as a bail agent:

In the course of my research, I learned that agents routinely offer various forms of assistance for low-income customers, primarily poor people of color. It’s very difficult for those with limited resources to get information, much less support, from overburdened jails, courts, or related institutions. Lacking attentive private attorneys, therefore, desperate defendants and their friends and families turn to bail companies to help them understand and navigate the opaque, confusing legal processes.

…In fact, even when people have gone through it before, the pretrial process can be murky and intimidating….[A]long with walking clients through the legal process, agents explain the differences between public and private attorneys and the relative merits of each. Discussions regularly turn to the defendant’s case: Is the alleged victim pressing charges? Will the case move forward if he or she does not? When is the next court date? If convicted, what’s the likely punishment? Any chance the charges will get dropped?

…In a classic 1975 study, sociologist Forrest Dill argued:

One of the key functions performed by attorneys in the criminal process is to direct the passage of cases through the procedural and bureaucratic mazes of the court system. For unrepresented defendants, however, the bondsman may perform the crucial institutional task of helping to negotiate court routines.

Dill’s observation still rings true: bail agents and administrative staff (at least in Rocksville) act as legal guides for defendants who do not have private attorneys—and at times they provide this help to defendants with inattentive hired counsel. They provide information about court dates and locations, check the status of warrants, contact court staff on defendants’ behalf (especially when the accused have missed court or are at risk of doing so), and, at times, drive defendants to their court dates. These activities help clients show up for court, thereby protecting the company’s investments.

The bail agents are not purely altruistic, they are in a competitive, service business and it pays to help their clients with kindness and care. When I asked one bail agent why he was so polite to his clients and their relations–even when they had jumped bail–he told me, “we rely a lot on repeat business.”

Ian Ayres and Joel Waldfogel also found that the bail bond system can (modestly) ameliorate judicial racial bias. Ayres and Waldfogel found that in New Haven in the 1990s black and Hispanic males were assigned bail amounts that were systematically higher than equally-risky whites. The bail bondpersons, however, offered lower prices to minorities–meaning equal net prices for people of equal risk–exactly what one would expect from a competitive industry.

My own research found that defendants released on commercial bail were much more likely to show up for trial than statistical doppelgangers released by other methods. Bounty hunters were also much more likely than the police to capture and bring to justice people who did jump bail. The bail bond system thus provides an important public service at no cost to the public.

In addition to being wrongheaded, Google’s decision is disturbing because it is so obviously a political decision. Google has banned legal services like bail bonding and payday lending from advertising on Google in order to curry favor with groups who have an ideological aversion to payday lending and the bail system. Google is a private company so this is their right. But every time Google acts as a lawgiver instead of an open platform it invites regulation and political control. Politicians on both sides will see that Google’s code is either a quick-step to political power without the necessity of a vote or a threat to such power. Personally, I don’t want to see greater regulation but if, for example, conservatives decide that Google doesn’t represent their values and threatens their interests, they will regulate.

Google’s decision to use its code as law is an invitation to politicization. Moreover, Google is throwing away its best defense against politicization–the promise of neutrality and openness.

Sex Redistribution and Disability

I am surprised that the subject of sex and disability has not arisen in the controversy surrounding Robin Hanson’s and Ross Douthat’s remarks on sex redistribution. The subject is one of active debate in the literature on medical ethics. Bioethicist Jacob Appel writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2010 argued:

If sexual pleasure is a fundamental right, as this author believes, then jurisdictions that prohibit prostitution should carve out narrow exceptions for individuals whose physical or mental disabilities make sexual relationships with non compensated adults either impossible or high unlikely.

…A second area in which reform is desperately needed is the ‘no sex’ policies that exist in American nursing facilities, mental hospitals and group homes. Many such facilities require the doors of patients’ rooms to be open at all times, making intimacy all but impossible. The assumption underlying these restrictions is that anything short of clearly expressed wishes by a fully competent and rational individual does not fulfil a minimum standard to consent to sexual relations. The principle advanced by this approach is that institutionalised individuals require a higher degree of protection than those living outside of institutions. In many matters, this is certainly the case. However, in regard to sexual relations, this ‘higher’ standard often serves as an obstacle to meeting both the wishes and interests of individuals who cannot conform to ‘real world’ standards of consent.

More challenging than a ‘negative rights’ conception of sexual liberty is one that also embraces a ‘positive right’ to sexual pleasure for the disabled–either for those individuals who are too impaired to find mates and/or those who are so physically incapacitated that they are incapable of pleasuring themselves. Several European nations, including Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland, allow limited ‘touching’ services for the severely disabled through non-profit organisations.

In the UK charities exist to help match sex workers with the disabled. Similar services are available in Denmark and in the Netherlands and in those countries (limited) taxpayer funds can be used to pay for sexual disability services. The Green party has proposed such services elsewhere:

A German politician has sparked controversy by suggesting people with severe disabilities could receive “sexual assistance” paid for by the state.

The Green party’s spokeswoman for age and care policy, Elisabeth Scharfenberg, said the government could “provide grants” for sexual services to disabled people who cannot achieve satisfaction by any other means.

Such a system is currently operating in Denmark and the Netherlands, where certified “sexual assistants” with special training conduct visits to disabled people who cannot afford to pay themselves.

Regardless of the answers one gives, I think these are legitimate questions of profound and deep importance to the people involved. It’s unfortunate and wrong that someone who brings these issues to the public forum is denounced and called creepy. We can and should do better.

The Royal Economic Society Prize

The 2017 Royal Economic Society prize for best paper in the Economic Journal has been awarded to Robert Warren Anderson, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama for their paper Jewish Persecutions and Weather Shocks 1100-1800 (non-gated). Noel and Mark are colleagues at George Mason and Robert is a former GMU student. Here’s the abstract:

What factors caused the persecution of minorities in pre‐modern Europe? Using panel data consisting of 1,366 persecutions of Jews from 936 European cities between 1100 and 1800, we test whether persecutions were more likely following colder growing seasons. A one standard deviation decrease in growing season temperature in the previous five‐year period increased the probability of a persecution by between 1 and 1.5 percentage points (relative to a baseline of 2%). This effect was strongest in weak states and with poor quality soil. The long‐run decline in persecutions was partly attributable to greater market integration and state capacity.

The RES is correct, this is an excellent paper with a great combination of theory and original data.

The award is another indication of the stellar quality of GMU’s economics department.

Student-Led Classrooms Waste Teacher Skill

A slew of research shows that direct instruction produces superior results compared to other instructional methods. A new study in the Journal of Labor Economics by Eric Taylor provides more information on how and why. Using a randomized controlled trial, Taylor compares a weak form of direct instruction with student led classrooms in which:

the students are expected to reason through and articulate math concepts with each other,while teachers facilitate conversationsand help students express their thoughtswith a focus on [students] understanding, rather than on students answering problems correctly

He finds that direct instruction results in greater student learning. More importantly, however, he also has data on how well teachers understand math and how to teach math and what he finds is that this knowledge is basically only productive when teachers use direct instruction. In other words, teacher skill only produces results when teachers are assigned a task that uses that skill. Student-led classrooms waste teacher skill and so are less productive.

Hat tip: Jose the (Not) Mediocre.

Richard Baldwin on the New Globalization

To really understand how this changed the nature of globalization, consider a sports analogy. Suppose we have two football teams, one that needs a quarterback but has too many linebackers, and one that needs a linebacker but has too many quarterbacks. If they sit down and trade players, both teams win. It’s arbitrage in players. Each team gets rid of players they need less of and gets players they need more of. That’s the old globalization: exchange of goods.

Now let’s take a different kind of exchange, where the coach of the better team goes to the field of the worse team and starts training those players in the off-season. This is very good for the coach because he gets to sell his knowledge in two places. You can be sure that the quality of the league will rise, all the games will get more competitive, and the team that’s being trained up will enjoy the whole thing. But it’s not at all certain that the players of the better team will benefit from this exchange because the source of their advantage is now being traded.

In this analogy, the better team is, of course, the G7, and not surprisingly this has led to some resentment of globalization in those countries. The new globalization breaks the monopoly that G7 labor had on G7 know-how…

That’s Richard Baldwin on the new globalization. His book, The Great Convergence is very good.

The Mirage of Data Portability

In The Facebook Trials: It’s Not “Our” Data I wrote:

Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.

…Moreover, it’s the prospect of profits that has led Facebook and Google to invest in the technology and tools that have created “our data.” The more difficult it is to profit from data, the less data there will be. Proposals to require data to be “portable” miss this important point. Try making your Facebook graph portable before joining Facebook.

In an important post, Will Rinehart, adds detail:

Contrary to the claims of portability proponents, however, it isn’t data that gives Facebook power.

Facebook’s technology stack, the suite of technologies that it uses behind the scenes, clearly shows the importance of scaling, as much of the architecture was developed in-house to address the unique problems facing Facebook’s vast troves of data. Facebook created BigPipe to dynamically serve pages faster, Haystack to efficiently store billions of photos, Unicorn for searching the social graph, TAO for storing graph information, Peregrine for querying, and MysteryMachine to help with end-to-end performance analysis. Nearly all of this design is open for others to use, and has been a significant boon to programmers in the ecosystem. The company also invested billions in content delivery networks to quickly deliver video, and it split the cost of an undersea cable with Microsoft to speed up information travel.

The vast investment that Facebook has put into programs for understanding and processing its users’ data points to the fundamental flaw in the argument for data portability.

…Requiring data portability does little to deal with the very real challenges that face the competitors of Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Entrants cannot merely compete by collecting the same kind of data. They need to build better sets of tools to understand information and make it useful for consumers.

Josh Angrist Joins MRU!

Tyler and I are thrilled that Josh Angrist has agreed to teach a class at MRU, Mastering Econometrics! Josh will be teaching the “Furious Five” of econometrics: random assignment, regression, instrumental variables, regression discontinuity designs, and differences-in-differences methods based, of course, on his great book with Jörn-Steffen Pischke, Mastering Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect.

Josh’s course is in production and will begin later this year. Join up now to get notified as the course begins.

Modern Principles for principles of economics, Mastering Metrics for econometrics, MRU has it all!

 

The Public Choice Outreach Conference–Limited Time Offer!

Hurry while there is still time to apply to the 2018 Public Choice Outreach Conference, a crash course in public choice for students planning careers in academia, journalism, law, or public policy will held June 9-10 in Arlington VA. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates are eligible to apply. Students majoring in economics, history, international studies, law, philosophy political science, psychology, public administration, religious studies, and sociology have attended past conferences. Speakers include Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, Bryan Caplan, Shruti Rajagopolan and many others.

You can find an application and more information here. If you are a professor please invite your students to apply.

The Great Leland Yeager has Passed

Leland Yeager has passed at the age of 93. Yeager was the last of that remarkable group of scholars–including Buchanan, Tullock, Coase, Nutter–that made Virginia political economy. Yeager was a polymath perhaps best illustrated by The Yeager Mystique an appreciation by William Breit, Kenneth G. Elzinga and Thomas D. Willett written some twenty years ago (quoted below). His work on monetary theory and international monetary relations remain of great value today.

His facility with languages was legendary:

Another doctoral student, the president of the Graduate Economics Club, was working with Yeager (in Yeager’s capacity as Director of Graduate Studies) to bring Maurice Allais to the University of Virginia for a colloquium. Yeager passed any correspondence from Aliáis on to the club’s president for a response. The correspondence was in French.

Nonplussed by what he mistakenly considered Yeager’s challenge to him, the club’s president decided to retaliate. With the aid of a graduate student in another department, he responded to Yeager with a letter written in Sanskrit. Yeager was oblivious to the ruse. Innocently, he replied in Sanskrit, saying how pleased he was that the club’s president knew this language.

In a faculty of great teachers he was regarded as primus inter pares:

Sometimes he would invite students for a weekend at his Charlottesville residence, where he provided excellent cuisine and wine and conversations which could sometimes lead to a publishable manuscript. A fascinating instance is provided by this lucky house guest: “I happened to ask him some questions on a topic in monetary theory. Well, Leland immediately brought out his tape recorder, and for the next several hours I proceeded to ask him questions, which we then discussed fully. Every few minutes he would summarize the discussion on his tape recorder. Very early the next morning I could hear Leland typing away at his typewriter. When I got up, he presented me with 23 pages of transcript – he had typed up all that we had recorded the night before. We eventually converted that transcript into an article which was published by a major journal. I don’t think I will ever be able to duplicate the excitement I felt during that discussion with Leland into the wee hours of the night.

See Tyler’s personal remembrance below.