Category: Economics

The economic impact of the Bernie Sanders agenda

From Casey Mulligan:

If fully implemented, but otherwise implemented wisely, Senator Sanders’ agenda for the economy would reduce real GDP and consumption by 24 percent.  Real wages would fall more than 50 percent after taxes.  Employment and hours would fall 16 percent combined.  There would be less total healthcare, less childcare, less energy available to households, and less value added in the university sector.  Although it is more difficult to forecast, the stock market would likely fall more than 50 percent…

Even if without any productivity loss or increased utilization in healthcare, college, and daycare, this means that the Sanders agenda would be expanding the Federal budget by 13.25 percent of baseline consumption.  Including 19 percent additional utilization of these “free” goods and services, tax rates on labor income must increase by 23.5 percentage points (it would be more but the Sanders agenda does expand the tax base by eliminating the exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance).  GDP falls by 16 percent (this does not yet consider productivity losses — that comes below).

You can quibble with some of the numbers on productivity decline, but that such estimates are even possible from fairly standard parameters should give a number of you some pause.  Here is my earlier post on the economic policy ideas of Bernie Sanders.

My Conversation with Garett Jones

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the opening summary:

Garett joined Tyler to discuss his book 10% Less Democracy, including why America shouldn’t be run by bondholders, what single reform would most effectively achieve more limited democracy, how markets shape cognitive skills, the three important P’s of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma, why French cuisine is still underrated, Buchanan vs. Tullock, Larry David vs. Seinfeld, the biggest mistake in Twitter macroeconomics, the biggest challenges facing the Mormon church, what studying to be a sommelier taught him about economics, the Garett Jones vision of America, and more.

Here is one bit:

COWEN: But let’s say it’s the early 1990s. Eastern European countries are suddenly becoming free, and they ask you, “Garett, what electoral system should we have?” What do you say?

JONES: What I really would go for is presidential systems, if you can handle it, something like a first-past-the-post system, where those people elected from local districts focused on local problems — which have less of a free-rider problem involved — go up to the parliament and actually argue their case. The presidential element is less important than the parliamentary idea of the single-district voting. I tend to think that creates more accountability on the part of the government.

And more:

COWEN: For the United States, what is the most effective way, in your view, that you would want us to have 10 percent less democracy? What’s the one thing you would change?

JONES: I would change the House of Representatives to a six-year term. I picked that because it’s not outside the range of plausibility, and because I think people would instantly understand what it accomplishes — not because it has the highest payoff, but because it balances payoff with plausibility in a democracy.

And on boosting IQ:

COWEN: But what’s the key environmental lever? Whatever Ireland did [to have induced an IQ rise], it’s not that people were starving, right? That we understand.

JONES: No, true.

COWEN: So why don’t we do more of whatever they did, whatever was done to the East Germans, everywhere?

JONES: Exactly.

COWEN: But what is that lever? Why don’t we know?

JONES: I would say that thing is the thing we call capitalism.

COWEN: Capitalism is a big, huge thing. Not all of capitalism makes us smarter.

JONES: Yeah, that’s the thing — figuring out which things within capitalism — what is it about living in a free society with competitive markets where, at least in our youth and middle age, we feel a need to sell ourselves as valuable creators. There’s something about that that probably is what’s most valuable for boosting cognitive skills. It’s a sort of demand-side desire to try to use our minds in socially productive ways. And I think in communism, we can —

COWEN: So marketing makes us smarter?

JONES: That’s what I would say, yeah.

There is much more at the link, an excellent Conversation.  Here you can order Garett’s book 10% Less Democracy: Why You Should Trust the Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less.  You can read the introduction to the book on-line.

Is common stock ownership really such a big deal?

We investigate the relation between common institutional ownership of the firms in an industry and product market competition. We find that common ownership is neither robustly positively related with industry profitability or output prices nor robustly negatively related with measures of non-price competition, as would be expected if common ownership reduces competition. This conclusion holds regardless of industry classification choice, common ownership measure, profitability measure, non-price competition proxy, or model specification. Our point estimates are close to zero with tight bounds, rejecting even modestly-sized economic effects. We conclude that antitrust restrictions seeking to limit intra-industry common ownership are not currently warranted.

That is from a new paper by Andrew Koch, Marios A. Panayides, and Shawn Thomas, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics.  A useful corrective to some of the exaggerations I have seen floating around.

How robust are supply chains?

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

Consider the supply chain of the Apple iPhone, which stretches across dozens of companies and several continents. Such complex cross-national supply chains generate relatively high profits, giving them a kind of immunity to small disruptions. If there is an unexpected tax, tariff or exchange movement, the supply chain can generally swallow the costs and move on. Profits will be lower within the supply chain, but production will continue, as it is too lucrative to simply shut everything down.

Do not be deceived, however: Supply chains are not indestructible. If the new costs or risks are high enough, the entire structure will be dismantled. By their nature, supply chains do not fall apart slowly, because each part of the chain relies upon other parts to add its value. It does not help much to have the circuit components of the iPhone lined up, for instance, if you cannot also produce the glass screens. In this way, these supply chains are less robust under extreme conditions.

Global supply chains have yet to come apart mostly because trade and prosperity generally have been rising. But now, for the first time since World War II, the global economy faces the possibility of a true decoupling of many trade connections.

It is not sufficiently well understood how rapid that process could be. A complex international supply chain is fragile precisely for the same reasons it is valuable — namely, it is hard to construct and maintain because it involves so many interdependencies.

The nature of the cross-national supply chain makes it especially vulnerable to shocks coming from the coronavirus. These supply chains do not adapt so well to complete cutoffs in materials or labor, as may happen if Chinese coronavirus casualties continue and workplaces find it hard to operate effectively.

Imagine that closed Chinese factories cannot produce the components of many American medicines. It is not a question of the supply chain simply losing some profits; rather, some critical pieces of the production process are missing. The medicines won’t work without these inputs. The U.S. medical establishment might try to source those components elsewhere, but it isn’t easy for other suppliers to produce enough of them at sufficient scale and quality.

U.S. medical producers might try to bid more for the Chinese medicine components, but if the workers are prohibited from even showing up at the factory, no feasible market clearing price can make this arrangement work. Production just won’t be possible. Fashionable practices of near-zero inventories can make these shortages appear all the more rapidly. About 80% of the active pharmaceutical ingredients in U.S. medicines rely on Chinese or Indian components, so this does represent a very real public health risk for the U.S., even if the coronavirus itself does not.

You will note that when it comes to ex ante planning, companies do not in general internalize the costs of a supply chain cut-off to their customers, since consumer surplus for the infra-marginal buyers exceeds market price.  Supply chain are thus too fragile relative to an optimum, though that matters only under very limited circumstances, as we may be seeing right now.

How valuable is social impact investing?

Perhaps it is overrated? That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

A second risk is that social impact investing simply redistributes wealth from investments — maybe to less socially conscientious individuals. Imagine a socially conscious investment firm that declines to participate in the initial public offering of a company that pollutes the ocean. That might create downward pressure on the price of the IPO. But there is a problem: The value of the actual investment has not declined, so at a potentially lower IPO price other investors will step in to fill the demand. In fact, those investors may have the chance to buy at a discount and earn a higher return than otherwise.

The net result is that conscientious investors have missed out on a profitable opportunity, while less socially aware investors have earned more. Over time, the less socially aware investors will become richer, and their greater wealth may translate into greater political and economic influence.

That also put less conscientious investors in control of the firm.  And:

It is also difficult to monitor the performance and social efficacy of the funds focused on doing good. In actively managed sustainable equity funds, for example, the most commonly held stocks are estimated to be Microsoft, Alphabet, Visa, Apple and Cisco. I have nothing against those companies, but you have to wonder exactly how much social improvement those investment funds are buying.

So many matters in today’s America are increasingly performative, and so:

It is increasingly difficult for businesses and investment funds to perform their proper work under the glare of perpetual debate and periodic condemnation.

Recommended.

Health care economist sentences to ponder

Various ideas to cut costs in Medicare and Medicaid have been proposed in recent years. Health economists generally oppose those changes.

And this:

If health economists were in charge of the health system, not a lot would change, with some notable exceptions. Medicaid would not have work requirements (which would be unpopular among conservatives in some states), and taxes would go up for Medicare and for employer-based health insurance (which would make it unpopular among just about everybody).

Here is a much longer and excellent piece by Austin Frakt, surveying what health economists in the United States believe about health care policy.  Also do note that health care economists overwhelmingly tend to be Democrats.

What should we think about all this?  That we can trust these health care economists to (more or less) endorse the current system because it is in fact pretty good, relative to available constraints?  That radical reforms, as suggested by say some Democratic presidential candidates, are undesirable and unneeded?  That the Democratic economists who endorse single payer are way overreaching?  Or that these health economists are both deluded — in whichever direction — and also major wusses?

Inquiring minds wish to know.  Here is a related Twitter thread from Michael Cannon.

Does digital socialism have a future?

No, not a good future, according to Jesús Fernández-Villaverde:

Can artificial intelligence, in particular, machine learning algorithms, replace the idea of simple rules, such as first possession and voluntary exchange in free markets, as a foundation for public policy? This paper argues that the preponderance of the evidence sides with the interpretation that while artificial intelligence will help public policy along with several important aspects, simple rules will remain the fundamental guideline for the design of institutions and legal environments. “Digital socialism” might be a hipster thing to talk about in Williamsburg or Shoreditch, but is as much of a chimera as “analog socialism.”

The paper is an excellent response to a growing set of claims, I would add further material on the work of Michael Polanyi and the importance of inarticulable knowledge.

Random Critical Analysis on Health Care

The excellent Random Critical Analysis has a long blog post, really a short book, on why the conventional wisdom about health care, especially in the United States, is wrong. It’s a tour-de-force. Difficult to summarize but, as I see it, the key points are the following. (I also drawn on It’s still not the health care prices.)

1. Health care spending is well predicted, indeed caused, by income.

Notice that the United States doesn’t look unusual when income is measured at the household level, i.e. Actual Individual Consumption, which measures the value of the bundle consumed by households whether the bundle items are bought in the market or provided by governments or non-profits. (AIC also avoids some issues with GDP per capita when a country has lots of intellectual property and exports, e.g. Ireland).

2. The price of health care increases with income but at a slower rate than income.

As a result of the above:

3. The price of health care relative to income is lower in rich countries, including the United States.

Let that sink in, health care prices are lower relative to income in richer countries. Health care in the United States is cheaper relative to income than in Greece, for example.

Since spending is going up faster than income but prices are not it must be the case that quantities are also increasing with income.

4. The density of health care workers (number of workers) and intensity (what the workers do) increases with income.

RCA: Rich countries consume much more cutting edge health care technology (innovations).  For every 1% increase in real income, we find a 1-3% increase in organ transplant operations, a 1-2% increase in pacemaker and ICD implants, a 1-2% increase in the density of medical imaging/diagnostic technology, and likely similar patterns for all manner of other new technologies (e.g., insulin pumps, ADHD prescriptions, etc.).   Obviously, these indicators are just the tip of the iceberg. Still, where data of this sort are available, they tend to be highly consistent with extreme income elasticity (particularly newer, more expensive forms of health care).  In the main, costs rise because this technological change tends to requires a lot more people in hospitals and providers’ offices to deliver this increasingly complicated array of health care (surgical procedures, diagnostics, drugs, therapies, etc.).

A bottom line is that health care spending in the United States is not exceptional once we take US income into account.

RCA’s analysis is consistent with the Baumol effect and my analysis with Helland in Why Are the Prices So Damn High (we have some minor differences with RCA on physician incomes but neither of our analyses depend on that point). A big point is that RCA and Helland and I argue that the rising price sectors are not crowding out consumption of other goods. We can and are buying more of other goods even as we spend more on health care and education. Or, as RCA puts it:

…these trends indicate that the rising health share is robustly linked with a generally constant long-term increase in real consumption across essentially all other major consumption categories.

It is true that the United States has a convoluted payment system which results in absurd and enraging bills. Fixing the pricing system could generate more equity and efficiency but RCA’s analysis tells us that billions are at stake, not trillions. A corollary is that as other countries reach current US levels of income their health care spending will look more like the United States does today.

See RCA for much more.

What does the stock market tell us about the T-Mobile/Sprint merger?

Here is an excellent post by Alec Stapp, easy to read but a bit hard to excerpt but here are the closing bits:

As a few others pointed out, these relatively small moves in AT&T and Verizon (less than 3 percent in either direction) may just be noise. That’s certainly possible given the magnitude of the changes. Contra Philippon, I think the methodology in question is too weak to rule out the pro-competitive theory of the case, i.e., that the new merged entity would be a stronger competitor to take on industry leaders AT&T and Verizon. We need much more robust and varied evidence before we call anything “bogus.” Of course, that means this event study is not sufficient to prove the pro-competitive theory of the case, either.

Olivier Blanchard, the former chief economist of the IMF, shared Philippon’s thread on Twitter and added this comment above: “The beauty of the argument. Simple hypothesis, simple test, clear conclusion.”

If only things were so simple.

Recommended.  Addendum: Philippon comments.

Why Didn’t Ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons?

Why didn’t ancient Rome have Dungeons and Dragons? I am talking, of course, about the game. Anton Howes presents the general problem:

A theme I keep coming back to is that a lot of inventions could have been invented centuries, if not millennia, before they actually were. My favourite example is John Kay’s flying shuttle, one of the most famous inventions of the British Industrial Revolution. It radically increased the productivity of weaving in the 1730s, but involved simply attaching a little extra wood and string. It involved no new materials, was applied to the weaving of wool — England’s age-old industry — and required no special skill or science. Weaving had been “performed for upwards of five thousand years, by millions of skilled workmen, without any improvement being made to expedite the operation, until the year 1733”, was how Bennet Woodcroft — one of the nineteenth century’s most important historians of technology — put it. (Lest you doubt that description of Woodcroft, he was, in addition to being an inventor himself, the man who compiled and categorised England’s entire patent record up to 1852, and who collected the inventions that would later form the basis of London’s Science Museum, particularly some of the earliest steam engines — among the most important machines in human history — that grace its engine hall today. My hero!) Weavers had been around for millennia, as had shuttles: one is even mentioned in the Old Testament (“My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, And are spent without hope”). As a labour-saving invention, Kay’s flying shuttle was even technically illegal.

I keep coming back to this example, because it goes against so many common notions about the causes of innovation. When it comes to skill, materials, science, institutions, or incentives, none of them quite seem to fit. But I keep seeing more and more such cases. There’s the classic example, of course, of suitcases with wheels – why so late? Was the bicycle another candidate?

…The economist Alex Tabarrok calls these cases “ideas behind their time”. I tend to just call them low-hanging fruit. Hanging so low, and for so long, that the fruit are fermenting on the ground. I now see them everywhere, not just in history, but today — probably at least one per week. And I now have a new favourite example, suggested yesterday on Twitter by Jordan Chase-Young: tabletop role-playing games.

Was it lack of the right the bureaucratic mindset? Lack of numeracy? Lower population densitie? Were such games invented but then lost to history? Ultimately Howes rejects these explanations, I think correctly.

Physically, there was nothing that actually stopped the invention of such games centuries or even millennia earlier. It required no special level of science, skill, or materials. So why did it take so long? Rather than there being any constraints, soft or otherwise, I think it’s simply because innovation in general is so extremely rare. It’s a matter of absence, rather than of barriers. The reason we have had so many low-hanging fruit throughout history is just because very few people ever bother to think of how to do things differently. We are, most of us, quite set in our ways. So even today, when there are many more inventors alive than at any previous point in human history, the fermenting fruit still abound.

Innovation doesn’t happen very often. How many people have ever invented a new way of doing anything? If stasis is the norm, then we should expect that many great ideas are routinely overlooked. For an economist this is an uncomfortable thought because we tend to think that profit opportunities are quickly exploited (no $500 bills on the ground). But while that is certainly true for choices within constraints it may not be true for choices that change constraints. This is also consistent with Paul Romer’s views on the combinatorial space of possible innovations—when the combinatorial space is vast and the explorers few, the innovations will be few and far between. What times, places and institutions generate more explorers?

Jason Crawford on twitter has more background and thoughts.

Penny Goldberg resigns as Chief Economist at the World Bank

When autocratic, oil-rich nations enjoy a windfall from higher crude prices, where does the money go? One place to look is Swiss bank accounts. Sure enough, an increase in oil prices is followed by a spike in deposits held by these countries in financial havens, according to a 2017 paper by Jorgen Juel Andersen of Norwegian Business School, Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen and their co-authors.

When Mr Johannesen presented this result at the World Bank in 2015, the audience included Bob Rijkers, a member of the bank’s research group. The two of them joined forces with Mr Andersen to investigate if something similar happened after another kind of windfall: infusions of aid from foreign donors. Their conclusion was dispiriting. World Bank payouts to 22 aid-dependent countries during 1990-2010 were followed by a jump in their deposits in foreign financial havens. The leaks averaged about 5% of the bank’s aid to these countries.

It seems the World Bank would not publish the paper — the reasons are disputed — and Goldberg resigned her post as chief economist — again the reasons are disputed.  Here is the full story from The Economist.

Is the world fortunate that the coronavirus hit China first?

Is the world fortunate that the coronavirus hit China first? China’s government has totalitarian impulses but that–for the most part– is working to its favor in combating the virus. What other country in the world could quarantine a city of 11 million people on the basis of (at the time) 17 reported deaths?

CNN: Across China, 15 cities with a combined population of over 57 million people — more than the entire population of South Korea — have been placed under full or partial lockdown.

Wuhan itself has been effectively quarantined, with all routes in and out of the city closed or highly regulated. The government announced it is sending an additional 1,200 health workers — along with 135 People’s Liberation Army medical personnel — to help the city’s stretched hospital staff.

China’s response to the virus has been unprecedented and one cannot help but be a little bit impressed.

I was in India recently and if the coronavirus hits India it could spread very rapidly and millions could die not just in India but around the world. India does not have a strong public health system (it has invested instead in sickness treatment, another example of premature imitation), it also has plenty of other opportunistic diseases and bacteria which would magnify viral sickness and overwhelm the public health system, and India does not have a state strong enough to effectively lock down cities. India’s only big advantage versus China is that it’s relatively free press and communication system could make an outbreak more quickly spotted. China, in contrast, tried to hide the initial outbreak. This does, however, cut both ways. India’s 1994 outbreak of the plague quickly became news, which led to official action, but hundreds of thousands of people quickly left the epicenter in Surat–smart action at the time but deadly if those fleeing are infectious.

We need a Manhattan Project to research, develop and produce new vaccines at a faster pace; the US is best placed to be the world leader in this regard. On other actions, the United States stands somewhere in between China and India. US quarantine action would certainly be slower than in China but it could happen, probably through the military, as we are seeing now.

The US approach of slow but eventually decisive action is probably best but how slow is too slow? Right now most people assume that the coronavirus is a blow to China but if does create a serious pandemic then China may be the first to recover and stabilize.

Hat tip: Lunch discussions with Robin, John and Ajay.

Why are people getting worse at The Price is Right?

Americans are worse at The Price Is Right than they used to be. On the game show, which has been running since 1972, four contestants are asked to guess the price of consumer products, like washing machines, microwaves, or jumbo packs of paper towels. The person who gets closest to the actual price, without going over, gets to keep playing and the chance to win prizes like a new car. In the 1970s, the typical guess was about 8% below the actual price. People underestimate the price by more than 20% in the 2010s.

This finding comes from recently released research by Jonathan Hartley, a data analyst currently studying public policy at Harvard University. A longtime fan of the show, Hartley was inspired to conduct his research after reading a research paper from 1996 that reveals contestants don’t use optimal bidding strategies—they too rarely bid just a dollar over the highest previous bid—and is one of the early economics papers to show how people could be irrational. Hartley wondered what else the data might show. He found that the accuracy of  people’s guesses sharply decreased from the 1970s to the 2000s, and then stabilized in the 2010s.

And why? There are three main hypotheses:

First, inflation in the US was much higher and much less stable in the 1970s and 80s. When inflation is high and variable, people become more attentive to prices, noticing they are paying more for goods than before.

Second, the rise of e-commerce may have made people less sensitive to price. Research by the economist Alberto Cavallo finds that online competition has made prices more similar across sellers, both online and off. As a result, people may feel less of a need to do price comparisons.

Third, there are more products than ever. There are 50 times as many products at a grocery store than 80 years ago, according to the economist James Bessen.

Here is the full 2019 piece by Dan Kopf, via Rasool Somji.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

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

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.

HARFORD: A hat?

COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.

And:

COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

Emi Nakamura, 2019 John Bates Clark award winner

From a new JEP appreciation by Janice Eberly and Michael Woodford:

Emi’s exposure to economics began early in life. Her grandfather, Guy Orcutt, was a distinguished econometrician (Watts 1991). Both of her parents, Alice and Masao Nakamura, were academic economists; her mother, Alice Orcutt Naka-mura, is a past President of the Canadian Economic Association. In addition to an early exposure to economic ideas, Emi credits her parents with instilling in her “a deep sense of the importance of testing theories empirically” (Ng 2015). Emi attended academic conferences with her mother and began taking economics classes at the University of British Columbia as a high school student. She credits one of these early classes, a master’s class on economic measurement and index number theory taught by Erwin Diewert, with making an early mark in her drive for clarity in measurement. In a similar vein, Emi watched the film “The Race for the Double Helix” about the discovery of the structure of DNA with her parents. They emphasized the role of the empiricist Rosalind Franklin and the notion that “there is nothing worse than a wrong fact.”

Perhaps one lesson here is the importance of mobilizing talent from very early ages.  Here is previous MR coverage of Emi Nakamura.