Factory Built Housing

Government concerns about great disparities in housing conditions, what are often called housing crises, date to at least the 1920s. These great disparities are, of course, still with us 100 years later. In this essay, we argue there will be no progress ending these great disparities until the residential construction industry adopts technology that other industries began adopting more than 100 years ago – factory production methods. There have been attempts to introduce these methods in residential construction for the last century, but they are always blocked and sabotaged by monopolies in the traditional construction sector, that is, the sector producing homes outside, on-site, using “stick-built” methods. Monopolies in traditional construction sabotage many types of factory-built homes. In this essay, we focus on the sabotage of particular types of such homes, what we call small-modular homes. These homes can be produced and sold at very-low prices, so that the sabotage of these homes has disproportionately hurt the low-income. The sabotage is the primary reason for the existence of, and perpetuation of, U.S. housing crises.

[Small-modular homes]…are blocked from most areas of the country – it’s simply illegal for a household to purchase such a home and place it on land owned by the household. In areas where they are “allowed,” they are often zoned for areas like manufacturing districts and dumps. Even then, regulations mean higher production costs for these homes in factories. They also mean the homes are financed as automobiles (with personal loans, or chattell loans) and not real estate loans. It’s clear why these homes are a threat to those constructing stick-built homes, especially in the lower-priced home market, and why monopolies in traditional construction have invested so heavily in blocking these small-modular homes. The homes are of high-quality, built to a strict national building code. They are manufactured at a cost per square foot that is one-third to one-half less than the cost per square foot to construct homes with traditional methods.

That’s from James Schmitz’s paper for the Minneapolis Fed, Solving the Housing Crisis will Require Fighting Monopolies in Construction.

Amazingly, a majority of the houses produced in the early 1970s were factory-built before these types of houses were driven out of the market. Capps at Bloomberg notes:

Manufactured homes briefly dominated the U.S. housing market during the 1960s. By 1972, these homes — not just mobile homes but small-scale modular houses — accounted for some 60% of all new single-family homes produced nationwide, according to census data. That number has diminished so much that the role of factories in building affordable housing has gone all but forgotten.

The Biden administration wants to put America’s house factories — those used to be a thing, really — back to work. A new housing plan by the White House offers a set of actions designed to close the nation’s massive affordability gap.

As Schmitz discusses at length in another paper, part of the reason economists have ignored the destruction of factory built housing is that economists came to think of the danger of monopoly as solely involving price (or, to put it the other way as Austrians do, they thought of the virtue of competition as only involving price.). In fact, monopolies reduce productivity and they use the political process to sabotage other firms. Competition isn’t just about price but about increased productivity and creative destruction.

P.S. I am in the process of building a factory-built house. The factory part was by far the easiest and most efficient part of the process.

Moving From Opportunity: The High Cost of Restrictions on Land Use

ImagePeople are more productive in cities. As a result, people move to cities to earn higher wages but some of their productivity and wages is eaten up by land prices. How much? In a new paper Philip G. Hoxie, Daniel Shoag, and Stan Veuger show that net wages (that is wages after housing costs) used to increase in cities for all workers but since around 2000 net wages actually fall when low-wage workers move to cities. The key figure is at right.

As I wrote earlier, it used to be that poor people moved to rich places. A janitor in New York, for example, used to earn more than a janitor in Alabama even after adjusting for housing costs. As a result, janitors moved from Alabama to New York, in the process raising their standard of living and reducing income inequality. Today, however, after taking into account housing costs, janitors in New York earn less than janitors in Alabama. As a result, poor people no longer move to rich places. Indeed, there is now a slight trend for poor people to move to poor places because even though wages are lower in poor places, housing prices are lower yet.

Ideally, we want labor and other resources to move from low productivity places to high productivity places–this dynamic reallocation of resources is one of the causes of rising productivity. But for low-skill workers the opposite is happening – housing prices are driving them from high productivity places to low productivity places. Furthermore, when low-skill workers end up in low-productivity places, wages are lower so there are fewer reasons to be employed and there aren’t high-wage jobs in the area so the incentives to increase human capital are dulled. The process of poverty becomes self-reinforcing.

Why has housing become so expensive in high-productivity places? It is true that there are geographic constraints (Manhattan isn’t getting any bigger) but zoning and other land use restrictions including historical and environmental “protection” are reducing the amount of land available for housing and how much building can be done on a given piece of land. As a result, in places with lots of restrictions on land use, increased demand for housing shows up mostly in house prices rather than in house quantities.

Moreover, as I also argued earlier, even though the net wage is still positive for college-educated workers a signficant share of the returns to education are actually going to land owners!  Enrico Moretti (2013) estimates that 25% of the increase in the college wage premium between 1980 and 2000 was absorbed by higher housing costs. Moreover, since the big increases in housing costs have come after 2000, it’s very likely that an even larger share of the college wage premium today is being eaten by housing. High housing costs don’t simply redistribute wealth from workers to landowners. High housing costs reduce the return to education, reducing the incentive to invest in education. Thus higher housing costs have reduced human capital and the number of skilled workers with potentially significant effects on growth.

Italy is Open

Italy has dropped all of its COVID entry requirements joining Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland,  Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom among many others. The US in contrast still has a vaccination requirement for non-citizens and a costly, annoying and near useless test requirement for everyone.

Planes are not especially dangerous for COVID transmission–people are in close quarters but the filtration systems are excellent. That does not mean the risks are zero but rather that there are no strong reasons to treat planes differently than buses, subways, taxis, bars, churches, mosques and concert halls and there is certainly no strong reason to treat foreign flights differently than domestic flights. By all means, wear a mask if you wish to reduce your risk.  But let’s not pretend that testing international travelers is protecting America’s borders.

The test requirement should be dropped forthwith.

Fact Checking Increases Fake News

Florian Ederer and Weicheng Min have an interesting new paper called Bayesian Persuasion with Lie Detection which shows that under some conditions fact checking can increase fake news.

How does lie detection constrain the potential for one person to persuade another to change her action? We consider a model of Bayesian persuasion in which the Receiver can detect lies with positive probability. We show that the Sender lies more when the lie detection probability increases. As long as this probability is sufficiently small, the Sender’s and the Receiver’s equilibrium payoffs are unaffected by the presence of lie detection because the Sender simply compensates by lying more. However, when the lie detection probability is sufficiently high, the Sender’s equilibrium payoff decreases and the Receiver’s equilibrium payoff increases with the lie detection probability.

The paper is difficult so here’s my stab at the intuition.

Suppose that politicians always want war but war is not always good. If voters can always detect a lie, politicians would always report war-is-good only when war was good and not-war when war was bad. Now suppose that voters can never detect a lie and also that the true probability of war being good is low. In this case, if politicians always report war-is-good then the voters would always ignore the politicians and choose no-war. But suppose that politicians always report war-is-good when war is good but sometimes report war-is-bad when war is bad (and, of course, sometimes report war-is-good when war is bad). In this situation, voters could be better off listening to politicians than ignoring them completely and the politicians will also be better off because they will get war more often—always when it is good and sometimes when it is bad. So, even though they always want war, how often should politicians report war-is-bad when war is bad? Just enough so that the voters are indifferent between following the politician’s advice and ignoring it altogether. In other words, voters have a threat point—ignore the politician completely. Knowing this threat point, politicians should tell the truth just enough so that voters prefer following the politician’s advice to ignoring them completely. Thus, even though voters can never detect a lie, politicians should sometimes tell the truth.

Now assume that there is (imperfect) lie detection. It’s immediately obvious that holding all else equal voters will be better off because now they will detect some of the times politicians say war-is-good when in fact war-is-bad. But precisely for this reason, all else will not be held equal, politicians will now report war-is-good when it is bad more often, i.e. they will lie more often. Working “backwards”, the voters threat point—ignore the politicians altogether—hasn’t changed and so their expected utility won’t change but that means that lie detection can’t make them better off and the reason is that politicians will lie more often.

In fact, lie detection doesn’t help the voters unless it is very accurate–perhaps more accurate than in our world.

Note that in this model voters cannot punish politicians for lying nor is there any opportunity for politicians to signal, to take costly actions that could separate truth tellers from liars. The model is all about “senders” and “receivers” of information–it’s a model of Bayesian persuasion not Bayesian punishment. In a model with punishment the ability to detect lies–even the ability to detect lies ex post–could result in more optimistic scenarios. Similarly, signaling might help, at the expense of some cost.

Nevertheless, the lesson I take is that information revelation is rarely pure. Information revelation is strategic–what is revealed and when it is revealed are choices in a game that may have complex and counter-intuitive equilibria.

For more, see Peter Coy’s interesting article on Bayesian persuasion in the New York Times.

The Unfairness Doctrine

The great George Will hits another one out of the ballpark with some useful reminders:

Government pratfalls such as the Disinformation Governance Board are doubly useful, as reminders of government’s embrace of even preposterous ideas if they will expand its power, and as occasions for progressives to demonstrate that there is no government expansion they will not embrace.

…Using radio spectrum scarcity as an excuse, even before the Fairness Doctrine was created, Republicans running Washington in the late 1920s pressured a New York station owned by the Socialist Party to show “due regard” for other opinions. What regard was “due”? The government knew. So, it prevented the Chicago Federation of Labor from buying a station, saying all stations should serve “the general public.”

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration conditioned one station’s license renewal on ending anti-FDR editorials. (Tulane Law School professor Amy Gajda’s new book, “Seek and Hide: The Tangled History of the Right to Privacy,” reports that earlier, FDR had “unsuccessfully pushed for a code of conduct for newspapers as part of the Depression-era National Recovery Act and had envisioned bestowing on compliant newspapers an image of a blue eagle as a sort of presidential seal of approval.”)

John F. Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commission harassed conservative radio, and when a conservative broadcaster said Lyndon B. Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 as an excuse for Vietnam escalation, the Fairness Doctrine was wielded to force the broadcaster to air a response.

Hat tip: Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek.

The Parent Trap–Review of Hilger

Nate Hilger has written a brave book. Almost everyone will find something to hate about The Parent Trap. Indeed, I hated parts of it. Yet Hilger is willing to say truths that are often not said and for that I would rather applaud than cancel.

Hilger argues that the problems of poverty, pathology and inequality that bedevil the United States are not primarily due to poor schools, discrimination, or low incomes per se. The primary cause is parents: parents who are unable to teach their children the skills that are necessary to succeed in the modern world. Since parents can’t teach the necessary skills, Hilger calls for the state to take their place with a dramatic expansion of not just child care but collective parenting.

Let’s unpack some details. Begin with schooling. It’s very common to bemoan the state of schools in the “inner city” or to complain about “local financing” which supposedly guarantees that poor counties will have underfunded schools. All of this, however, is decades out-of-date.

A hundred years ago there really were massive public-school resource gaps by class and race. These days, however, state and federal spending play a larger role than local property tax revenue and distribute educational resources more progressively….In fact, when we include federal aid, 42 states spent more on poor school districts than on rich school districts in 2012. The same pattern holds between schools within districts

….The highest spending districts are large urban centers such as New York City, Boston and Baltimore. These cities spend large sums to educate rich and poor children alike. p. 10-11

Hilger is correct. No matter what you saw on The Wire, Baltimore spends more than sixteen thousand dollars per student, among the highest in the nation in large school districts and above average for the nation as a whole. Public schools are quite egalitarian in funding with any bias running towards more funding for poorer districts.

Schools, Hilger writes are “actually the smallest and most equalizing part of a much larger skill-building system.” The real problem, says Hilger, are parents.

But what about discrimination? When it comes to wage discrimination, Hilger is brutally honest:

If we compare individuals with similar cognitive test scores, Black college graduates earn higher wages than white college graduates. Studies that don’t control for test score differences but examine earnings gaps within specific professions—lawyers, physicians, nurses, engineers, scientists—tend to find Black workers earn zero to 10 percent less than white workers. These gaps could reflect discrimination, unmeasured skill differences, or other factors such as geography. In any case, such gaps are small compared to the 50 percent overall Black-white earnings gap and reinforce the idea that closing skills gaps would go a long way toward closing income gaps.

Hilger argues that racism does play an important role in explaining Black-white wage differentials but it’s the historical racism that made black parents less skilled and less able to pass on skills to their children. In the twentieth century, Asians, Hilger argues, were discriminated against in the United States at least much as Black Americans. But the Asians that came to the United States had high skills while the legacy of slavery meant that Black Americans began with low skills. Asians, therefore, were better able to overcome discrimination. The success of Nigerians and Jamaican immigrants in the United States also speaks to this point.  (Long time readers may recall that in 2016 I dubbed Hilger’s paper on Asian Americans and Black Americans the Politically Incorrect Paper of the Year .)

Parental investment is surely important but Hilger overstates his case. He writes as if poorer parents have neither the abilities nor the time to teach their children while richer, better educated parents simply invest lots of hours and money imbuing their children with skills:

…the enormous variation in parents’ own academic skills has big implications for kids because we also demand that parents try to be tutors. During normal times, parents in America spend an average of six hours per week helping—or trying to help—their kids with school work. Six hours per week is more than K12 math and English teachers get with children…good tutoring by parents for six hours a week, every week, year after year of childhood could raise children’s future earnings by as much as $300,000.

The data on the effectiveness of SAT test-prep suggests that these efforts are not nearly so effective as Hilger argues. The parental investment story also doesn’t fit my experience. I didn’t spend six hours a week helping my kids with their homework. I doubt most parents do. I simply assumed my kids would do their work. I do recall that we signed my kids up for tutoring at Kumon, the Japanese math education center. My kids would complain bitterly when we took them for drill on the weekend. It was mostly filling out rote forms and my kids would hide or bury their drill sheets so we were always behind. Driving my kids to the Kumon center, monitoring them. and forcing them to do the work when they rebelled like longshoreman on work-to-rule was time consuming and it was ruining our weekends. I felt guilty, but after a while, my wife and I gave up. Today one of my sons is a civil engineer and the other is a math and economics major at UVA.

Hilger has an answer to this line of objection, or at least he says he does, but to my mind it’s a very odd answer. He argues, relying heavily on Sacerdote, that adoption studies show that more skilled parents result in more skilled kids. I find that answer odd because my reading of Sacerdote is that the effect of parents are small after you control for genetics—this is, as Hilger acknowledges, the conventional wisdom among psychologists. (See Caplan for an excellent review of the literature). It is true that Sacerdote plays up the effect of parents, but it looks small to me. Here is the effect of the adopted mother’s maternal education on the child’s education.

As you can see there is an effect but it is almost all from the mother going from having less than a high school education to graduating high school (11 to 12 years). In contrast, the mother can move from graduating high school to having a PhD and there is very little change in the education level of an adoptee. Note, however, that the effect on non-adoptees, i.e. biological children, is much larger throughout the entire range which suggests the influence of nature not nurture.

I am not surprised that there is some effect of parental education on child’s education because going to college is in part a cultural issue. Parents can influence cultural aspects of their children’s identity such as whether a child grows up up nominally Catholic, Mormon, or Hindu but they have relatively little effect on child religiosity, let alone personality or IQ. I think that a large fraction of the college wage premium is signaling (50% is a moderate estimate, Caplan thinks 90% is closer to the truth), so I am also not overly excited about college attendance as a marker of success.

The effect of parental income on the income of child adoptees is even more dramatic than on education—which is to say negligible. The income of the adopted parents has zero effect (!) on child’s income even as parent’s income varies by a factor of 20! The only correlation is with non-adoptee income—which again suggests the influence of nature not nurture.

At this point in the book, it was almost inevitable that we were going to get yet another paean to the Perry Preschool Project and indeed Hilger waxes enthusiastically about Perry. Seriously? The Perry Preschool project started in the 1960s and had just 123 participants (58 in treatment and 65 in control!). There are more papers about the Perry Preschool project than there were participants. I am jaded.

Aside from the small sample size, the project had imperfect randomization and missing data and most importantly limited external validity. The Perry Preschool project treated a small group of disadvantaged African American children with low-IQs (IQs of 70-85 were part of the selection criteria). The treatment is usually described as “active learning pre-school” but it was more intrusive than that. Every week counselors would go to the homes of the kids to teach the parents (mostly mothers) how to raise their children. The training was important to the program. Indeed, Hilger notes, without sense of irony, that “facilitating greater skill growth in low-income children was so complicated that it required home visitors with advanced postsecondary degrees.” (p. 89). And what were the results?

The results were good! (Heckman et al. 2010, Belfield et al. 2006). But in the popular literature the impression one gets is that the program took a bunch of disadvantaged kids and helped them read and write, making them more middle-class and successful. Some of that happened but the big gains actually happened because the participants, especially the boys, were so socially dangerous and destructive that even a bit of normalization made life substantially better for everyone else. In particular 82% of the treated group of 33 males had been arrested by age 40, including for one murder, 4 rapes, 8 robberies, 11 assaults and 14 burglaries. The control group were worse. In the control group of 39 males there were 2 murders. Indeed the reduction of one murder in the treatment group accounts for a significant benefit of the entire Perry PreSchool project.

Hilger, to his credit, is reasonably clear that what is really needed is an intensive program for disadvantaged African Americans, especially males. In a stunning sentence he writes:

The more we rely on families rather than professionals to build skills in children, the tighter we link people’s current prospects to the prospects of their ancestors. p. 134

But he soon forgets or papers over the context of the Perry Preschool project and like everyone else in the literature uses this to support a national program for which there is no external validity. It’s hard to believe, given the lack of external validity, but Heckman et al. (2010) only exagerate mildly when they write:

The economic case for expanding preschool education for disadvantaged children is largely based on evidence from the HighScope Perry Preschool Program…

Hilger’s case for the difficulty of parenting is well taken—the FAFSA was a nightmare that taxed two PhDs in my family. But the bottom line is that most parents do just fine. Moreover, it’s shocking that in recounting the difficulties of parenting Hilger says hardly one word about an obvious factor which makes parenting more than twice as hard. Namely, single parenting. I was a single parent. Once for a whole week. Don’t do it. Get married, stay married. Perhaps Hilger didn’t want to appear to be too conservative.

Instead of recommending marriage and small targeted programs and more experiments, Hilger goes full Plato.

What would it look like if we [asked]…less not more of parents? It would look like professional experts managing more than the meagre 10 percent of children’s time currently managed by our public K12 system—much more. p. 184

And why should we do this? Because we are all part slaves and part slave-owners on a giant collective farm:

As fellow citizens who benefit from tax revenue, we all—even those of us without children—collectively own about 30 percent of any additional income other people’s children wind up earning. p. 197

Ugh. We own ourselves, not one another. Society isn’t about maximizing the collective it’s about free individuals coming together to produce rules so that we can enjoy the benefits of collective action while still living in a diverse society that respects individual rights, beliefs, and ways of living.

I told you I hated parts of The Parent Trap but Hilger has written an interesting and challenging book and he is mostly right that neither schooling nor labor market discrimination play a major role in the black-white wage gap. Hilger is probably also right that we spend too much on the elderly relative to the young. The idea of greater state involvement in the raising of children is on the table today in a way it hasn’t been for some time. See also Dana Susskind’s recent book Parent Nation. Changes on the margin may be warranted. Nevertheless, I stand with Aristotle and not Plato in thinking that raising children is better done by parents than by the state.

Why We Can’t House the Homeless

During the pandemic, New York State allocated $100 million to turn struggling New York City hotels into low-cost housing. What could be simpler? Hotels are already used to house people so converting a hotel to more longer-term housing ought to be much simpler and cheaper than building from scratch or converting a parking structure into housing. Nope.

Politico: “There are very few hotels that physically could be converted and comply with the requirements of today’s zoning and building code without substantial, expansive reconstruction, partial removal or demolition,” said James Colgate, a land use partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP who has advised clients on zoning issues including the conversions of hotels. “That would increase the costs greatly.”

For example, a building’s elevators, doorways, or rooms may be slightly short of the size required for a residential structure. Residential buildings are also required to have a certain amount of rear-yard space that a hotel may not have.

“You would literally have to be chopping off part of the building,” Rosen said.

…The legislation dictates that each unit include a kitchen or kitchenette with a full-sized refrigerator, cooktop and sink — something Rosen said made utilizing the program “simply too expensive.”

“This is the classic case of the perfect being the enemy of the possible,” said Mark Ginsberg, a partner at the firm Curtis + Ginsberg Architects, which has worked on hotel conversions.

Some advocates who pushed the creation of the program say those provisions were necessary to ensure it didn’t generate substandard housing.

Substandard housing compared to what? Living on the street?  And get this person.

“We didn’t want a program that cut corners to make it more palatable to developers,” said Joseph Loonam, housing campaign coordinator for the progressive advocacy group VOCAL-NY. “We wanted a program that centered the needs of homeless New Yorkers, which is true high quality affordable housing where they can have full autonomy and dignity.”

Well, they got what they wanted, the program wasn’t palatable to developers as only one application has been received and none of the money spent. Thanks progressive advocacy group for centering the needs of homeless New Yorkers.

Testing Freedom

I did a podcast with Brink Lindsey of the Niskanen Center. Here’s one bit on the FDA’s long-history of banning home tests:

Brink Lindsey: …it’s on the rapid testing that we had inexplicable delays. Rapid tests, home tests were ubiquitous in Europe and Asia months before they were in the United States. What was going on?

Alex Tabarrok: So I think it’s not actually inexplicable because the FDA has a long, long history of just hating people testing themselves. So the FDA was against pregnancy tests, they didn’t like that, they said women they need to consult with a doctor, only the physician can do the test because literally women could become hysterical if they were pregnant or if they weren’t pregnant, this was a safety issue. There was no question that the test itself was safe or worked. Instead what the FDA said, “We can regulate this because the user using it, this could create safety issues because they could commit suicide or they could do something crazy.” So they totally expanded the meaning of safety from is the test safe to can somebody be trusted to use a pregnancy test?

Then we had exactly the same thing with AIDS testing. So we delayed personal at-home tests for AIDS for literally 25 years. 25 years these tests were unavailable because the FDA again said, “Well, they’re dangerous.” And why are they dangerous? “Well, we don’t know what people will do with this knowledge about their own bodies.” Now, of course, you can get an HIV test from Amazon and the world hasn’t collapsed. They did the same thing with genetic tests from companies like 23andMe. So I said, “Our bodies ourselves, our DNA ourselves.” That people have a right to know about the functioning of their own bodies. This to me is a very clear violation of the Constitutions on multiple respects. It just stuns me, it just stuns me that anybody could think that you don’t have a right to know, we’re going to prevent you from learning something about the operation of your own body.

Again, the issue here was never does the test work. In fact, the labs which produce these tests, those labs are regulated outside of the FDA. So whether the test actually works, whether yes, it identifies this gene, all issues of that nature, what is the sensitivity and the specificity, are the tests produced in a proper laboratory, I don’t have a lot of problem with that because that’s all something which the consumers themselves would want. What I do have a problem with is then the FDA saying, “No, you can’t have access to this test because we don’t know what you’re going to do about it, what you’re going to think about it.” And that to me is outrageous.

Here’s the full transcript and video.

Interland: A New Type of Government

Max Tabarrok has an interesting new idea for governance, Interland:

The Interland Flag

Interland takes the intersection of the law codes of a large group of nations. This will produce a minimal reasonable set of laws which is highly resistant to lobbying and growth.

Anyone who wants to add a new agricultural subsidy, building height limit, or immigration restriction has to convince everyone in this group to add it before it passes in Interland. This makes the institutions of the country consistent and durable.

Durability is only good if the thing that’s lasting is also good. We have several reasons to expect this to be the case for Interland’s institutions. First, Interland will have a shorter list of statutes and regulations than any other country in its group. This isn’t unconditionally good, but since the mechanisms of democracy are likely to overproduce rules it’s the directionally correct adjustment. Even better is that all of the laws that Interland does have will be more universally supported than most of the laws in other nations, since they are by definition the set of laws that many nations agree on. As more countries are added to the intersection, Interland’s law code would be further distilled into human universals. Finally, Interland will be the freest nation on earth. Anything which is allowed by any member of the intersection will also be allowed in Interland.

Importantly, Interland’s constitution will be positively constructed. This means it will be a list of all of the things the government can do, and anything not listed is not within the government’s authority. This is in contrast to parts of the American constitution and Bill of Rights which define government authority by tracing the negative space that its authority cannot cross, but there was significant debate over which method was best during the drafting of the American constitution.

So what sorts of laws would Interland have? All nations share a lot of their basic criminal code. Murder, theft, and rape are all illegal in every country so they’d be illegal in Interland. Abortion, homosexuality, multi-family, and multi-use construction would not be illegal although many countries outlaw them. Nuclear power construction would be much easier thanks to the laws of France and South Korea, and almost all drugs would be legal or at least decriminalized.

…Interland’s taxation and spending would be minimal, mirroring nations like Hong KongSingapore, and Luxemburg. But by all accounts these nations have effective and comprehensive public services. Unfortunately in the eyes of some and thankfully for others, Interland would have a state police force, a public road network (although toll roads would be allowed), public parks, and libraries.

Read the whole thing for some discussion of other issues and limitations.

I think this is a compelling idea. Establishing a new country is difficult, of course, but the ideas of interland can be applied to already existing countries or sub-countries. A US state, for example, could declare itself an interland–Interland: New Mexico–and pledge to adopt only those laws that every other state has adopted. A country in the OECD or EU could declare itself an interland and so forth.

The code of Interland could also be useful in and of itself as a reference point. If we had an Interland database one could compare how close or far countries are to Intereland and in what respects they differ. Interland could be a virtual country and a model code–a country and code to which other countries can aspire to much like the Uniform Law Code.

Viva Interland!

The Demand and Supply of Misinformation

Bryan Caplan reminds us that misinformation wouldn’t work well if people weren’t so irrational.

The [standard misinformation] story focuses exclusively on the flaws of speakers, without acknowledging the flaws of the listeners. Misinformation won’t work unless the listeners are themselves naive, dogmatic, emotional, or otherwise intellectually defective. In economic jargon, the problem is that the story mistakes an information problem for a rationality problem.

The motivation for this crucial omission is fairly obvious. Blaming listeners for their epistemic vices sounds bad. It makes the accuser sound elitist, if not arrogant. Blaming a few high-status liars for the world’s problems is a lot more compatible with Social Desirability Bias than blaming billions of low-status fools who fail to choose to exercise their common sense.

I agree but it’s an equilibrium process. The demand and supply of misinformation both matter. Moreover, it’s not implausible that social media has increased the supply of misinformation, essentially because it has greatly accelerated the evolution of memes. As Dawkins taught us, memes evolve like genes but in the past memes evolved like rabbits, more rapidly than human beings but not so rapid that we couldn’t keep up. Now memes evolve like viruses, mind viruses. Even worse we have made improving memes profitable so we have capitalist energy added to faster random mutation.

I am somewhat hopeful that social media hit us hard because it was novel. A generation raised on social media may have more natural immunity–assuming we survive the infection. I also encourage (as does Bryan) institutions like betting markets to raise the price of misinformation (a bet is a tax on bullshit). Betting markets and expert aggregation markets like Metacuulus can help. We should invest more in the support and prestige of tools for developing rational consensus. More generally, if we can’t raise the cost of misinformation, better tools to aid our limited rationality could reduce the demand.

Cryptoeconomics!

The crypto market is up! The crypto market is down! The roller coaster can be fearfully thrilling but as thoughtful academics and people interested in ideas let’s look away from the daily ups and downs and focus on the big picture. What is crypto? What is cryptoeconomics?

Tyler and I have written a new chapter for our textbook, Modern Principles. In Cryptoeconomics we explain just enough cryptography–namely cryptographic hash functions and public-private keys–to understand what new forms of communication and organization have been made possible by these breakthroughs. We then use these fundamentals to explain NFTs, blockchains, Bitcoin, smart contracts and decentralized finance–all in a crisp, compact format accessible to everyone.

Not everyone wants to teach crypteconomics, of course, or has the time (scarcity!) so this chapter will be available as an option to anyone using our book and the Achieve online course management system (in fact, it’s available now). Tyler and I have found, however, that our students, colleagues, even people at dinner parties ask us about crypto. Probably your students and friends will ask you as well. Plus our textbook is called Modern Principles so we thought we were obligated to teach these new ideas!

Cryptoeconomics is a good guide to some fundamentally new ways of trading, communicating, and cooperating.

Addendum: If you want to learn more about DeFi, my talk goes into greater depth.

The State of Public Transit in the Nation’s Capital

The mismanagement of the metro system in the nation’s capitol is astounding.

WashPost: Metro’s train delays are projected to worsen as the agency abruptly yanks from service more than 70 operators who have been working without undergoing a mandatory retraining process for at least a year, officials announced Sunday.

The agency pledged corrective action in a release acknowledging that nearly half of the agency’s 500 train operators lack required recertification testing and training, while warning that staffing issues would lengthen wait times on the Green and Yellow lines from 15 to 20 minutes until the end of the month.

…Metro’s latest predicament coincides with a train shortage that has forced the agency to operate at reduced service with longer-than-normal wait times since mid-October. The safety commission ordered about 60 percent of its fleet out of service after a federal investigation into a Blue Line derailment found a defect affecting the wheels of the 7000 series, Metro’s latest and most advanced model of trains and rail cars.

Without the series’ 748 cars, Metro has been forced to rely on older models, some 40 years old and nearing retirement. The smaller, older cars, coupled with lower frequencies, have driven many passengers away because of crowding and social distancing concerns as coronavirus case numbers continue to fluctuate. Those concerns will only grow with longer wait times and fewer trains in service.

You may recall that in 2015 there was a deadly fire on the Metro which I wrote about in 2016.  (post repeated below).

WTOP: A Metro worker blamed for falsifying records about the tunnel fans that failed during last year’s deadly smoke incident near L’Enfant Plaza has been granted his job back by an arbitration panel — and Metro’s largest union has just filed a lawsuit against Metro because the worker hasn’t been reinstated yet.

The union’s defense is that everyone was doing it so no one is to blame. The Union is probably right that the WMTA suffers from a culture of poor safety and responsibility but you can’t fix that culture without clear signals that the incentives have changed.

I had to take the Metro to DC earlier this week and due to track closings for safety improvements it was miserable, at least 45 minutes of delays for the roundtrip. Some 700,000 people ride the metro every day and if each is delayed by just 15 minutes total (7.5 minutes each way) then at $15 an hour that’s 2.6 million dollars worth of delay every day.

Before traveling on the DC Metro I recommend checking the twitter account @IsMetroOnFire.

Addendum: At least this time heads are rolling.

Infant Formula, Price Controls, and the Misallocation of Resources

For the week of April 3, at least 12 states faced out of stock rates higher than 40 percent, including Connecticut, Delaware, Montana, New Jersey, Rhode IslandI’ve been reluctant to write about the shortage of infant formula simply because it’s so tiring to say the same thing over and over again. Obviously, this is a classic case where the FDA should allow imports of any food or baby formula approved by a stringent authority. (Here’s the US Customs and Border Patrol bragging about how they nabbed 588 cases of infant formula from Germany and the Netherlands as if it were cocaine.) Scott Lincicome has an excellent run down which covers not just the FDA but the problems caused by trade regulation and the WIC program as well.

What I want to do is focus on something less discussed: Why does the shortage vary across the country and even city by city?

I believe one reason is implicit price controls, either due to fear of regulatory backlash, regulatory constraints through other programs, or a misplaced desire not to upset consumers.

Price controls create shortages–that much is well known–but they also create a misallocation of goods. No doubt you have seen pictures from the 1970s of long lines of cars waiting to get gasoline. But there weren’t lineups everywhere at all times–rather we had the strange situation where there were shortage of gasoline in some places while, just a hundred miles away, there was plenty. Or shortages one day and surpluses the next.

Prices rationally allocate goods across space and time in response to shifts in demand and supply. If demand increases in one place, for example, prices rise, creating an incentive to bring in supplies from elsewhere. A rising price signals where supplies are needed and creates an incentive to deliver. Or, as Tyler and I put it, A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive. A price controlled below the market price creates a shortage and it also kills the signaling and incentive function of prices. The result is allocational chaos: Shortages in some places and times and excess supply in other places and times.

In fact, price controls in a capitalist economy give you a window onto a planned economy. If you think of communism as a system of universal price controls this allocation chaos is the essence of why a communist state cannot rationally allocate resources.

Tyler and I discuss allocational chaos in our chapter on price controls in Modern Principles of Economics. See also this excellent video.

ESG Versus Innovation

Some wise words on ESG and innovation from the excellent Bart Madden:

Excessive focus on looking good in the short term via ESG metrics can be at cross-purposes with a long-term planning horizon keyed to innovation. A sizable portion of a firm’s major innovations may not move the needle much as to ESG metrics but may score high in the eyes of customers as to value creation (and quite possibly improve their customers’ ESG performance). Recent research reveals a tendency during quarterly earnings conference calls for those managements who have reported weaker-than-expected profits to talk less about financial results and more about their ESG progress.31 Keep in mind that innovation is the key to sustainable progress that jointly delivers on financial performance and taking care of future generations through environmental improvements.

Addendum: Bart has a history of smart investing.