Category: Current Affairs

Words of wisdom

Amazon will pay property tax on its new Long Island City offices. It will pay corporate tax — not just on its profits, but on its capital base. Its employees, especially highly paid ones, will pay the city’s personal income tax. Those taxes, of course, will be somewhat offset by the incentives that the city has promised the company — up to $2 billion, depending on how many people the company hires and how many facilities it builds. Those incentives were a wasteful way to attract corporate investment. But in the long run, the tax revenue New York City gets from HQ2 will probably far exceed the cost.

That is from Noah Smith at Bloomberg.  The “will” needs to be changed, otherwise right on target…

Amazon winners and losers

WINNERS:

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam: He did a good job on the first Amazon deal for Virginia, and now can try to lure more of the company here.  There is a new reason to keep him in office and also to start paying attention to a different issue.

Nashville and the Southeast more generally: That part of the country has fewer local NIMBY activists and is less likely to elect figures such as AOC.  Texas too.  Is it possible that I live in the sanest part of the country?  Wouldn’t that be funny?

The Bay Area: NYC is no longer such a fierce competitor at the macro level, with the potential to become the new center of gravity for the tech world.  The Bay Area can breathe a bit more easily now, at least as long as clustering remains the name of the game.  Yet this one is double-edged, because it also means the Bay Area has less incentive to solve its rather pressing problems and dysfunctions.

Valentine’s Day: It will be used to announce more dramatic break-up events, and thus become all the more emotionally fraught, in both positive and negative directions.

Hoboken and Jersey City: They are nicer than Manhattan anyway and with better day-to-day food options, right?  Right?  Queens won’t be obviously outcompeting them as a home for a new, high-quality business site.

Regional development subsidies: It was awfully easy for Amazon to walk away from this “deal.”  Expect to see higher subsidies and tighter deals in the future.

LOSERS:

Queens: Most of the residents wanted the project to come.

Amazon: The company will find it harder to access the top talent of New York City, and the top talent that is willing to live in New York City.  Let’s hope this is a blessing in disguise, and a new path toward discovering hitherto untapped sources of talent.

New York City: Yes, Google is expanding in Chelsea but more and more NYC is becoming a city of finance and tourism and restaurants.  Can a location have the Dutch disease and cost disease at the same time?  Stay tuned to find out.

YIMBYs: One of the world’s most valuable, efficient, and also popular companies could not make stick a deal to expand and create tens of thousands of high-paying jobs and pay more taxes.  What hope do the rest of us have?

Seven lessons about blackmail

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

Every now and then, a few apparently random news events come together and influence how you see the world. My most recent lesson is that blackmail and blackmail risk are a lot more common than I had thought.

And:

…the main villains in these privacy losses are not the big internet companies. While it is murky exactly how the Bezos photos leaked, it seems to have involved old-fashioned spying and the interception of text messages (and possibly a renegade brother). Silicon Valley didn’t sell his data. As for Northam, the yearbook is from the pre-digital era, dug up in a school library. This information was not on the internet, though of course it did play a role in spreading it.

Third, billionaires can be pretty useful. As Bezos asked in his open letter on Medium: “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” In this case, both the billionaire and the medium of communication are the good guys.

Fourth, fears of a new era of blackmail based on Photoshopped images and so-called deep fakes (phony but convincing video) may be overblown, or at least premature. In the cases of both Bezos and Northam, the authenticity of the source material (text messages and photos) is not really being questioned, and both stories are receiving intense scrutiny. Rather, the debate is over the provenance and significance of the information.

There is much more at the link.

My Conversation with Jordan Peterson

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the summary:

Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?

PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.

I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.

It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.

COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —

PETERSON: Yeah.

COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?

PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.

Much more than just the usual, including a long segment at the end on Jordan’s plans for higher education, here is one bit from that:

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Definitely recommended, even if you feel you’ve already heard or read a lot of Jordan Peterson.

Life without the Export-Import Bank

In terms of total revenue, Boeing, the aerospace giant, had its best year ever in 2018, with worldwide sales of $101.1 billion.

Exports were particularly robust. Commercial jet deliveries to foreign airlines rose from 763 in 2017 to 806 last year. Overall, the company has a 5,900-order backlog for airplanes worth a staggering $412 billion, according to The Post last week…

For the past 3½ years, Ex-Im, as the trade-finance agency is known, has been essentially paralyzed, yet Boeing has gone from strength to strength…

In the end, Ex-Im survived, as a legal entity. Crucially, though, Senate Republican foes of the bank refused to confirm a quorum for the bank’s board; without a quorum, Ex-Im cannot approve loan transactions larger than $10 million.

As a result of this ploy, the bank has been unable to aid foreign sales of Boeing or other makers of big-ticket goods since June 2015.

And yet, in that time, Boeing has done awesomely well.

It’s not just Boeing that has survived or thrived during Ex-Im’s paralysis. Another company that received heavy Ex-Im support, construction-equipment-maker Caterpillar, achieved a record profit per share in 2018. Caterpillar’s outlook for 2019 is somewhat less rosy, due to broad economic factors such as the slowdown in China, but Ex-Im, or the lack thereof, hardly registers in analyst forecasts.

Here is more from Charles Lane.

What does a Twitter-driven politics look like?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the final bit:

But what does this new, more intense celebrity culture mean for actual outcomes? The more power and influence that individual communicators wield over public opinion, the harder it will be for a sitting president to get things done. (The best option, see above, will be to make your case and engage your adversaries on social media.) The harder it will be for an aspirant party to put forward a coherent, predictable and actionable political program.

Finally, the issues that are easier to express on social media will become the more important ones. Technocratic dreams will fade, and fiery rhetoric and identity politics will rule the day. And if you think this is the political world we’re already living in, rest assured: It’s just barely gotten started.

Buy (or Rent) Coal! The Coasean Climate Change Policy

Since climate change and what to do about it are in the news it’s time to re-up an underrated idea, buy coal! Carbon taxes increase the price of carbon and induce economic and technological substitution towards lower-carbon sources of fuel in the countries that adopt them. As carbon-tax countries reduce fuel use, however, non carbon-tax countries see the price of their fuel decline. Thus, unless all countries join the tax-coalition, there is leakage. Supply-side policies are an alternative to demand supply policies. The United States, for example, could buy out and close coal mines, including giving the workers substantial retirement/reallocation bonuses, thus reducing the world supply of coal which is still the largest source of C02 emissions.

You can get rich by hitting an oil gusher, but coal is relatively expensive to mine and to transport. Thus, it’s relatively cheap to buy out coal mines because you aren’t buying the coal, you’re buying the right to leave the coal in the ground. Cutting the supply of coal raises its price which will increase the quantity supplied in other countries. Thus, there is the potential for supply leakage as well as demand leakage. It’s probably easier to use more coal when the price of coal falls (electricity, for example, can be generated in a variety of ways) than it is to mine more coal when the price rises. In other words, the elasticity of the demand for coal is greater than the elasticity of supply so supply leakage is probably less than demand leakage. Furthermore, supply leakage can be handled by buying out supply in the non-coalition countries. As Noah Smith pointed out with the graph at right (data) US CO2 emissions are actually falling while the rest of the world keeps rising (as they catch up in per-capita terms) so addressing the CO2 emissions problem requires bringing countries like China and India on board.

Coal use in China is very high and increasing. India has been canceling coal plants as solar becomes cheaper but coal is still by far the largest source of power in India. Thus, there is plenty of opportunity to buy out, high-cost coal mines in China and India.

It might seem odd to buy Chinese and Indian coal mines but we buy Chinese and Indian labor, why not a coal mine? Moreover, it’s important to understand that the policy is to buy only up to the point that it benefits both parties. Buying coal isn’t foreign aid, it’s a pollution reduction plan just like a carbon tax or R&D investment and because we can buy barely-profitable coal mines and avoid the problem of leakage this is a low-cost method to reduce CO2 emissions.

Collier and Venables worry that foreign voters won’t like foreign investors buying up coal mines, although foreign investment is hardly uncommon and foreigners do protect rainforests by buying the right to cut them down. In any case, Collier and Venables suggest a cap-extract and trade program. Under cap-extract there is a cap on global extractions of carbon (not use) but rights to extract can be traded. Since it’s more valuable to extract say oil than coal what this would mean is that payments would flow from mostly developed countries to developing countries which makes it clear that we are all in the boat together.

Even without a cap-extract and trade program, however, there are other factors that make buying coal attractive to people in selling countries, namely coal is killing them even putting aside the dangers of climate change.

NYTimes: Burning coal has the worst health impact of any source of air pollution in China and caused 366,000 premature deaths in 2013, Chinese and American researchers said on Thursday.

Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of the deadly fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere, according to a study the researchers released in Beijing.

India’s air quality is even worse than China’s and is responsible for some 1.2 million early deaths annually. A 25% cut in pollution in India could increase life-expectancy by 1.3 years and in some highly polluted cities such as Delhi by 2.8 years. Not all pollution comes from coal but a substantial amount does.

Buyers might worry that a foreign government will take their money and later renege on the deal. There are lots of ways to deal with this problem–turn the coal fields into a national park, for example, or develop them for housing. But let’s turn a problem into a solution. Instead of buying coal, we could rent it. In other words, buy the right to delay mining the coal for say 10 years. Given the rate of improvement in solar, many coal plants will be uneconomic in 10 years and given the rate of improvement in living standards and the consequent increased demand for clean air, many coal plants in India and China could well be unpolitical in 10 years. Thus, it is true that some solutions are naturally in the offing, but for exactly this reason some coal plants are going to be working extra hours in the next decade to squeeze out what profit they can while they still can. We can avoid this last push of CO2 into the atmosphere by buying up the right to extract and holding it for a decade.

A program to leave coal in the ground could easily pay for itself in lives saved and climate stabilized.

The policing culture that is China

Short-video app TikTok has a reputation for being beloved by young people the world over, but it’s also surprisingly popular with Chinese police officers.

In early January, China Police Network, a news portal run by the Ministry of Public Security, announced that 175 new TikTok channels had been created by police stations, SWAT teams, traffic police, and prisons in the month of December, bringing the country’s grand total to nearly 1,200 such accounts. That month, they churned out over 13,000 videos attracting a combined 4.8 billion views.

Since June of last year, China Police Network has kept a monthly tally of the most popular law enforcement accounts and videos on TikTok — or Douyin, as it’s known in China. While police in other countries have plugged into social media and cultivated fan followings on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, their Douyin-loving counterparts in China stand out in terms of scale and the wide range in both quality and content of their videos.

The January post mentions a comedic clip made by an account called Shishou Public Security that received over 800,000 likes. The video depicts a middle-aged woman tearfully describing her myriad contributions to the economic empowerment of women as mournful music plays in the background — before the camera flips to police officers unmasking her as the madame of a brothel.

The article also congratulates Siping Police Affairs for becoming the first police account in China to eclipse 10 million followers and praises the success of police hashtag campaigns such as #SayNoToDrunkDriving.

Since its launch in China in September 2016 and its expansion to international markets as TikTok a year later, Douyin boasts around 800 million downloads worldwide. The platform’s premise is simple: Users create and share 15-second videos, some of which wind up going viral. The police presence on Douyin has yielded a manic mix of content, from humdrum notices of arrests and other official business to reposts of pandas at play to original comic sketches with didactic denouements.

Here is more from Kenrick Davis at Sixth Tone.

Nigeria fact of the day

Last year more people were killed in clashes over land between farmers and cattle-herders than were slain by Boko Haram.

By the way:

On February 16th Nigerians will go to the polls in the largest democratic event in African history.

And:

In total Mr Buhari has delivered on just seven of the 222 pledges he made as a candidate, according to the Centre for Democracy and Development, a Nigerian think-tank.

Here is The Economist article.

The wisdom of Ramez Naam, on climate change

From his tweetstorm here are a few bits:

Our biggest climate problems – the sectors that are both large and that lack obvious solutions, are: a) Agriculture and land use changes (AFOLU in the graphic) and b) Manufacturing / Industry. Together, these are 45% of global emissions. And solutions are scarce. 11/

I’m not saying that clean electricity or transport are solved. They’re not. But in electricity, we have solar, wind, batteries growing & getting cheaper & on path for 70-80% decarbonization *at least*. Same with electric cars and trucks. We have momentum in those sectors. 12/

We do NOT have momentum in reducing carbon emissions of agriculture or manufacturing. In agriculture, livestock methane emissions + deforestation to graze livestock are biggest problems. And meat consumption is doubling in next 40 yrs. This should scare you more than coal. 13/

In industry, despite progress in recycling steel, *primary* steel production is still incredibly carbon intensive. As is cement. As is much of manufacturing. We haven’t reached the “solar cheaper than coal” or “EVs cheaper than gasoline” tipping points there. We need to. 14/

If the US is serious about climate policy, it ought to focus on these two sectors – agriculture and industry – that are soon to be the two largest emissions sources, and lack solutions. We should press to invent solutions, drive them down in price, and spread them globally. 16/

Do read the whole thing.

Stop demeaning billionaires and you were unfair to Howard Schultz

Here is my Bloomberg column on that point.  Furthermore, that tape of Schultz is much better than what many media sources reported, here is the excerpt on that:

In an interview, Schultz was asked whether billionaires have too much power. He responded by noting that the moniker “billionaire” has become a “catchphrase” and proceeded to reframe the question: “I would rephrase that and I would say that people of means have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair.” So he didn’t necessarily disagree with the premise of the question. Nor did he say that other people shouldn’t use the term “billionaires.”

For the record, he also noted that such people have “unbelievable influence,” and that speaks to the problem of inequality. And he included corporations (not just people) and the political ideologies of the two major parties as part of the problem.

Is that such a terrible answer? Not only on the merits, but also in explaining why Schultz might want to move away from the term “billionaire” as the sole locus of blame? Then again, maybe that’s just what you would expect a billionaire to say.

You can watch the interview here, and note the rest of the column is making more general points about how we should talk about people and their wealth:

My parents taught me never to ask a person how much he or she earns. I was told that it was rude, and I still believe that. It follows that we also should not ask people about their net wealth. And, out of politeness, perhaps it is also inappropriate to openly discuss the range of their net wealth.

Why have countries moved away from wealth taxes?

From the excellent Timothy Taylor:

Back in 1990, 12 high-income countries had wealth taxes. By 2017, that had dropped to four: France, Norway, Spain, and Switzerland (In 2018, France changed its wealth tax so that it applied only to real estate, not to financial assets.)  The OECD describes the reasons why other countries have been dropping wealth taxes, along with providing a balanced pro-and-con of the arguments over wealth taxes, in its report The Role and Design of Net Wealth Taxes in the OECD (April 2018).

For the OECD, the bottom line is that it is reasonable for policy-makers to be concerned about the rising inequality of wealth and large concentrations of wealth But it also points out that if a country has reasonable methods of taxing capital gains, inheritances, intergenerational gifts, and property, a combination of these approaches are typically preferable to a wealth tax.  The report notes: “Overall … from both an efficiency and an equity perspective, there are limited arguments for having a net wealth tax on top of well-designed capital income taxes –including taxes on capital gains – and inheritance taxes, but that there are arguments for having a net wealth tax as an (imperfect) substitute for these taxes.”

Here, I want to use the OECD report to dig a little deeper into what wealth taxes mean, and some of the practical problems they present.

The most prominent proposals for a US wealth tax would apply only to those with extreme wealth, like those with more than $50 million in wealth.  However, European countries typically imposed wealth taxes at much lower levels of wealth…

It’s interesting, then, that in these European countries the wealth tax generally accounted for only a small amount of government revenue. The OECD writes: “In 2016, tax revenues from individual net wealth taxes ranged from 0.2% of GDP in Spain to 1.0% of GDP in Switzerland. As a share of total tax revenues, they ranged from 0.5% in France to 3.7% in Switzerland … Switzerland has always stood out as an exception, with tax revenues from individual net wealth taxes which have been consistently higher than in other countries …” However, Switzerland apparently has no property tax, and instead uses the wealth tax as a substitute.

The fact that wealth taxes collect relative little is part of the reason that a number of countries decided that they weren’t worth the bother. In addition, it suggests that a US wealth tax which doesn’t kick in until $50 million in wealth or more will not raise meaningfully large amounts of revenue.

There are many more excellent points at the link.  Here is another:

A wealth tax will tend to encourage borrowing. Total wealth is equal to the value of assets minus the value of debts. Thus, one way to avoid a wealth tax is to borrow a lot of money, in ways that may or may not be socially beneficial.

Tim concludes:

To me, many of the endorsements of a wealth tax feels more like expressions of righteous exasperation than like serious and considered policy proposals.

Recommended.  If you would like another point of view, Saez and Zucman respond to some criticisms here.

The New Zealand real estate problem, with reference to Palmerston North

From my email, from Ryan Reynolds:

I’ve worked in Palmerston North, as well as Tauranga and Auckland (all briefly). I’m Australian too, so my perspective may be shaded vs what a Kiwi or someone from further afield might say.

The major issue is just supply of new dwellings and the permitting and development process. All the rest of the factors noted point to increases in demand (immigration, natural population growth, easy credit, real income growth, tax structures, chinese buyers) – but without a limit on supply you would have expected those factors to result in a building boom not a rapid price appreciation. That’s obviously not the way reality has played out.

From a permitting side, the Resource Management Act heavily constrains lots of building decisions and imposes a lot of bureaucracy (and time delays and uncertainty). Less specifically, Kiwi’s appear to have strong preferences for careful building and urban sprawl in lots of dimensions. That includes specific issues like building heights, overshadowing, retaining views of specific hills or valleys (including Maori heritage sites) and retaining its environmental and cultural heritage (however brief it may seem to outsiders). These preferences are captured in major urban plans which set out acceptable terms for developments, but often even urban plans won’t contain enough zoned land to meet demand (see the bun fight over the Auckland Unitary Plan from 2016), and even then those plans took years to put together. This plays out in a strong community undercurrent and politicians of both stripes use scare campaigns about the horrors of inappropriate development. Anything two stories or over can count as ‘inappropriate’.

From a policy perspective there seems to be no understanding of the practical trade off between housing demand and conservation, except from economists outside the planning departments (see NZ Initative or Michael Reddell, ex RBNZ) or from the central government threatening to unwind urban plans.

The second issue is that NZ also has a lot of partly and wholly government owned and operated utilities (water supply, networks and wastewater; electricity and gas networks; electricity generation) and services provided under government monopolies required for new developments (roads, education, healthcare, and other social services). In many cases the entities charged with providing these services are capital and/or budget constrained and they don’t have the funds to provide major new capex works in the short to medium term. Furthermore, the revenues earned from providing these services are often inadequate to cover economic costs. For instance, water supply and wastewater is provided at below cost price in many cases in NZ, and in large parts of the country water supply is un-metered. And there is serious community opposition to either privatization or changes in tariffs. As a consequence though, capex projects in the water sector are effectively large donations of capital for no return for the water corporation. As is the case for virtually all roads, schools, or hospital projects, any of which could prevent or stall major new urban developments. So even if new land was zoned as ‘fit for development’ (which it won’t be), the entities required to facilitate that development don’t have the funds to do so and nobody else is allowed to fill that gap.

And yes, Palmerston North is still dull. But then people say that Switzerland is dull too. I’ve seen much worse.